Fab facts about 'Wicked Bugs'

Published 12:00 am Friday, May 27, 2011

“Wicked Bugs,” by Amy Stewart. Illustrated by Briony Morrow-Cribbs. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. 2011. 272 pp. $18.95.
SALISBURY — First of all, let me say this … Eeeeuuuuwwww!
When “Wicked Bugs” arrived, I was almost afraid to stick my hand in the envelope once I saw the cover.
Had some clever marketing person dropped a plastic version of a wicked bug inside?
Phew. No.
Then I expected something to run out of it as I opened it — you know how some books are.
Nope. Sigh of relief.
I closed one eye while flipping through pages, yuck, yuck, yuck. But in black and white, no actual photos. Slight sigh.
Knowing I had to review it, to go along with the review of “Wicked Plants,” I planned to only look at the book in the office, during daytime hours.
I still feel as if something is crawling on meeeeeee.
There are two kinds of people in the world — bug haters (me) — and bug lovers (boys under 12 and men who never outgrew that, called entomologists).
Some of us make some exceptions — a lady bug here and there is OK, thousands in your house are not. A spider is OK if you have flies. Crickets, though noisy, are supposed to bring good luck. The imposing praying mantis, if male, doesn’t last long, and they eat lots of other bugs.
In fact, if you read Amy Stewart’s book, you’ll learn the females only live a year or so.
But if you’re prone to nightmares, don’t read this at bedtime. Take care when reading the chapter, “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.”
What’s worse than ticks and mosquitoes? The bot fly, which lays eggs on ticks or mosquitoes, which then hatch in the wound the tick or mosquito made. And what comes after an egg? A larva, under your skin, feeding on you.
Also avoid the screw-worm fly, which scientists say has been eliminated from the United States. You’ll have to go to Africa for the dreaded tumbu fly, which burrows into healthy skin, then creates a boil oozing a vile liquid that includes your own blood.
OK, enough of that.
On the lighter side, right at the beginning of the book is a funny chapter, “She’s Just Not That Into You,” with a cute drawing of a lady mantis ready to dine on her mate’s head.
This chapter is all about bug sex, and if you think you’ve heard about some kinky stuff, you ain’t heard nothin’ yet.
Meet the banana slug, which is yellow and about the size of your finger. It’s hermaphroditic, meaning it has both male and female sex organs. Nevertheless, it takes another banana slug to tango, and a whole lot of slime. They wrap into an S shape and often bite each other during the act. But sometimes they get stuck to each other and … well, this is a family newspaper.
The firefly female shines her light to say, “Hey, guys, I’m over here.” But it’s a trick. She flashes a pattern that attracts another species of firefly, which she attacks and eats, in order to gain some of his defensive chemicals, upping her chance for survival. Smart girl.
Let’s just let Stewart describe the mantid lovemaking: “By the end of their date there is nothing left of him but his wings.”
And then she describes some pretty rough stuff, the mildest of which is the crab spider, who’s into bondage.
Then she’ll tell you about some foreign nasties, including the assassin bug.
But it’s back to the old familiars, ants, bees, midges, bedbugs, wasps.
Turn the page and, hello, black widow — she’s much less interested in biting you than you think. But she doesn’t like to be cornered. And here’s a familiar foe — the brown recluse. Stewart says the spider is overly feared and too often blamed for mysterious lesions or illnesses. Its bite does cause a painful wound, but it’s rarely deadly.
There are so many other spiders that look like the brown recluse, they are often confused. Remember, a recluse has six eyes, arranged in three pairs.
Useful terms you can toss about:
• Arachnophobia — fear of spiders;
• delusional parasitosis — mistaken belief of infestation by parasites;
• entomophobia — fear of insects
• katsaridaphobia — fear of cockroaches;
• spheksophobia — fear of wasps.
The creepy death-watch beetle creates a ticking sound like a clock as it eats the beams in your old house. It’s the sound Edgar Allan Poe is talking about in “The Tell-Tale Heart.” It’s a sound often spoken of in literature, especially in connection with someone who is dying.
Among the biting, stinging ants is the bullet ant, whose bite is described as “pure, intense brilliant pain. Like firewalking over flaming charcoal with a 3-inch rusty nail in your heel.” That comes from the Schmidt Sting Pain Index.
And still, there’s more, from intestinal parasites, to common garden ruiners and nasty critters like millipedes.
It’s pretty interesting reading, really, and may be just the thing for an entomophobe to start with in desensitization therapy.
Stewart has a good sense of humor, but manages to be serious about the scary stuff.
And illustrator Briony Morrow-Cribbs, with her pen-and-ink drawing, should get credit for the little shock every time one of her bugs scurries across the pages.