Friday 24 May 2019

'Insects pretty much run this planet, and what affects them will soon affect us' - Plucky new science book tells all

Popular science: Extraordinary Insects

Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson

Mudlark, hardback, 320 pages, €14.99

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The eyes have it: dragonflies provided the blueprint for US Army drone designs
Extraordinary Insects by Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson

'The world is rich in small wonder but so poor in eyes that see them." Norwegian scientist Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson serves up this quote in her conclusion to Extraordinary Insects, attributing it to "a Canadian entomologist" who remains curiously nameless.

Elsewhere, she mentions that "there is not enough room" in this published volume to go into a discussion about an ecological approach to agriculture versus intensive pesticide use. If you can't do it here, where can you, you might ask.

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But to give Sverdrup-Thygeson her credit, these things are most likely examples of this timely Nordic bestseller leaving aside the odd detail so that the vital gestalt can preside. In this case, it's that "small wonder" we need reminding about at a crucial time in our planet's well-being.

A crisis in global biodiversity means that insect numbers are declining at an unsustainable rate. In Germany alone, the last 30 years have seen a 75pc decrease in insect numbers. To illustrate what this means in practical terms, when a German family heads off on long summer drive, they arrive at their destination without spattered bugs across their windscreen.

But insects, this plucky popular science release urges us to consider, are much more than just smudges on a windscreen. The truth is that they pretty much run this planet, and what affects them will soon affect us. Harvard professor Edward O Wilson puts it simply: "We need invertebrates but they don't need us. If human beings were to disappear tomorrow, the world would go on with little change."

The issues that have ravaged insect populations vary from the local - such as habitat destruction and light pollution (the latter a scourge of nocturnal species such as moths, whose lunar compass is disrupted) - to much wider concerns such as intensive agricultural practices, pesticide use and climate change.

Similarly diverse, however, are the ways in which we rely on insect life. Pollinating species, one estimate states, are worth in the region of $577bn to global agriculture. A variety of insect visitors are not only vital in pollinating crops efficiently, they break down biomass to ensure nutrients are released back into the soil for further growth. Trying to change attitudes to ecology through phrases such as "promoting biodiversity" doesn't seem to be working, so maybe it's time to try ones like "crop failure".

Although no discussion about insects in today's world can ignore the fact they are fundamental to human prosperity while simultaneously struggling because of us, Sverdrup-Thygeson's success is to illuminate the magic rather than whack us over the head with a placard. And there is much magic, some of it verging on unbelievable. One example that was so far-fetched this reviewer had to cross-check online was found in the chapter 'Busy Flies, Flavoursome Things' which looked at the role insects play in delivering delicacies such as chocolate, coffee, apples and honey to our lips. It mentions a bird called the honeyguide, an African species that actively leads humans to bee hives so that it can get a share of the honey, wax and larvae. What's more, anthropologists believe the relationship might be 1.8 million years old.

There are countless wonders scurrying through these pages. In a chapter covering insects' role as the planet's chief recycling engine, we are told how dung beetles are able to roll their giant stash in perfectly straight lines by using the Milky Way to orientate themselves. There are termite mounds that have taught human architects about air conditioning, and plastic-eating bugs that might help us combat our catastrophic love of this material. Dragonflies can see up to 300 separate images per second, while their mastery in the air has made them the blueprint for the US Army's drone designs.

And then there are the micro-civilisations of the ant world that sowed crops and kept livestock tens of millions of years before a human farmer scratched his rear in the morning sun.

So what separates something like Extraordinary Insects from any number of documentaries or books looking at matters entomological? The answer is the unique voice of our guide, who arches her eyebrow right the way through with some decidedly dotty Scandinavian humour.

There is lots of carry-on in 'Six-Legged Sex', the chapter dealing with insect procreation that finds room for any number of winks at the current gender wars while also wedging in comparisons to Ibsen's Nora and even Queen B herself (the "Beyoncé horsefly", named so because it was originally collected in 1981, the star's birth year, and "more importantly, because it had such a beautiful backside").

Biophilia, our need for deep and intimate connections to the natural world, displays itself in multitudes of ways. Sverdrup-Thygeson's passion is obvious, as is her extensive (and thoroughly cited) research, but what she demonstrates here is that listening to animals begins with speaking like a human.

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