Buzzwords: A Scientist Muses on Sex, Bugs, and Rock 'n' Roll

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What sort of person devotes their life to the study of bugs? How do you picture your average, every-day entomologist? "I've been photographed on several occasions," writes author May Berenbaum, "and it seems that every time, photographers ask me to pose in one of three ways: seated in front of a microscope, with an insect (usually a cockroach) on my face, or with an insect net clutched in my hand."

In Buzzwords, Berenbaum expertly blows away these stereotypes with short takes on all things entomological--from the story of a pet ant kept for 14 years to major motion pictures featuring cockroaches.

Buzzwords showcases the Best of Berenbaum, a selection from her humor column in the American Entomologist professional journal, accompanied by a number of original pieces written for this book. "I know people are reading these columns," she notes, "because they write me letters that point out all the mistakes I've made!"

The book comes in four parts:

  • How entomologists see insects, including their view of a U.S. government plan to eradicate illicit coca fields by dropping caterpillars from airplanes.
  • How the rest of the world sees insects, with Berenbaum's proposed classificatory scheme for placing Spider Man, Firefly, and other cartoon superheroes into well-defined taxa.
  • How entomologists view themselves--featuring Bambi Berenbaum, a gorgeous entomologist created for an episode of TV's popular "The X-Files," whose character was inspired when the scriptwriter consulted Berenbaum's books.
  • How entomologists see their colleagues, with various views on scholarly citation, motion sickness, and more.

Along the way are some thought-provoking observations--for example, about the impact of television on public knowledge of science. In one poll, Berenbaum writes, 35% of adults said they believed that prehistoric humans coexisted with dinosaurs, a la the Flintstones.

Berenbaum even takes on the controversy over alternative medicine, fearlessly purchasing Chinese medicinal insects during a professional trip to Vancouver, which also happened to be her honeymoon. "Okay, so maybe giving two talks at an International Congress of Entomology is not everybody's idea of a romantic honeymoon venue, but it seemed like a good idea at the time."

Berenbaum is a noted scientist in a field that doesn't always gets the respect it deserves, but she shows us that there's a fun and even freaky side of life with insects. While working on the University of Illinois' annual Insect Fear Film Festival she received a letter from a "crush freak" who waxed lyrical about a young, sexy babe with a size 9 or 10 shoe. Berenbaum writes, "On the one hand, it's almost gratifying to think that insect pest management can arouse people's interest to such an extreme extent. On the other hand, it has convinced me not to list my shoe size in the biographical sketch of my next book."

Readers will appreciate learning how the word "shloop" was introduced to the medical literature when physicians used a metal suction tip to remove a cockroach from a patient's ear canal, and how one investigator named a series of subspecies bobana, cocana, dodana, and so forth, "anticipating by 60 years the song, 'The Name Game,' by Shirley Ellis."

Although you'll chuckle all the way, Berenbaum has the last laugh, giving powerful lessons in the spectacular diversity of the insect world and the nature of scientific discovery, cleverly packaged as witty observations on subjects far and wide.

If you're a scientist or you like reading about science--better yet, if you've ever found a fly in your soup (or worried that you might have unknowingly just slurped one down with your tomato bisque--this book is for you.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Best Sci-Tech Books of 2000.
Library Journal
This collection of essays, containing some new material, comes from a long-running humor column in the American Entomologist written by Berenbaum (entomology, Univ. of Illinois; Bugs in the System; Herbivores) The author has become a keen observer of how insects, those who study them, and the rest of the world all interact in the arena of popular culture. Though the writing is clever -- there's at least one chuckle per essay -- the material is not enough for an entire book, so Berenbaum is forced to reword and repeat herself. The repetition becomes annoying, though perhaps it would be less apparent if the reader were to dip into the collection, rather like a bee going from flower to flower. Part rumination on the depiction of insects and entomologists in TV, movies, and music and part autobiography, Berenbaum's fluffy essay collection is a marginal purchase for most libraries.
Entomologist May Berenbaum culls the best of her humor columns from the journal between 1991 and 1999, along with a few additional essays written expressly for this book. Purged of inside entomological jokes and unnecessary jargon for this volume, the essays offer an entertaining and informative perspective on the life of insects as well as people's attitudes towards them. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
From The Critics
A scientist muses on sex, bugs and rock in a humorous entomology title which will invite many nonbug fans to read. From how entomologists see insects (as opposed to the rest of the world) to reflections on pets and internet culture, Buzzwords creates a lively survey of the worlds of man and insect.
The Boston Globe
Midges, praying mantids, sea monkeys, and bottle flies are just a few of the odd creatures that flit around in Buzzwords, May R. Berenbaum's seductively funny volume of essays. While the bugs she writes about are often repulsive, the book and its author are anything but. Buzzwords is surely one of the most engaging and intelligent examples of popular science to some along since -- oh, since cartoonist Gary Larson started drawing praying mantises. She is a writer of well-crafted sentences, as well as a scientist who manifestly respects her readers' intelligence. The publication of Buzzwords liberates Berenbaum's writing from the minute audience of American Entomologist and delivers it to the public at large. Rejoice that Berenbaum is here to tell you [about the world of insects].
The New York Times
Arguably the most relentlessly creative insect advocate in the world…
Washington Post Book World
Besides possessing a wry humor, Berenbaum knows everything about insects.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780309068352
  • Publisher: National Academies Press
  • Publication date: 8/1/2000
  • Series: Joseph Henry Press Bks.
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 5.49 (w) x 8.24 (h) x 0.83 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

On elderly ants

Most of the owners of secondhand bookstores in town recognize me on sight and inevitably greet me with a smile whenever I walk in. The smile is more than just good retail business practice—they know that odds are excellent that when I leave I will take with me a lot of merchandise and leave behind a lot of money. I don't collect things as a rule—not coins, not matchbook covers, and not even insects to speak of—but I do seem to have a compulsive need to own out-of-date, cracked, yellowing books about insects. No matter how long that copy of Entomological Papers from the Yearbook Agriculture 1903-1911 has sat moldering on the shelf—the booksellers know once I walk in they'll never have to dust it again. No matter how ridiculously overpriced that 1910 copy of How to Keep Bees for Profit is—the checkbook will open and the ink will flow. Sometimes in their zeal, these booksellers will show me books about snakes, worms, snails, and other noisome creatures, but to date I have usually managed to contain my impulses, succumbing only if there's a passing reference within the volume to anything six-legged.

    As hobbies go, this one isn't bad, really—it's legal, it's not as expensive as, say, powerboat racing or big game hunting (not to mention a lot safer), and, best of all, it's not fattening. This hobby is how I happened to read Lord Avebury's account of a 14-year-old ant. A visit to Old Main Book Shoppe on Walnut Street in downtown Champaign produced a dusty copy of Lord Avebury's Ants, Bees, and Wasps,from 1916, which, of course, I bought without even opening. By the way, Old Main Book Shoppe was at one time actually located on Main; I assume the owner just liked the sound of "Old Main" more than "Old Walnut." Once I got home, I started thumbing through the book and soon came across a passage discussing the life expectancy of ants, which, it happens, was a subject of some controversy a century ago:

The life of the queen and workers is much longer than had been supposed. I may just mention here that I kept a queen of Formica fusca from December 1874 till August 1888, when she must have been nearly fifteen years old, and of course she may have been more. She attained, therefore, by far the greatest age of any insect on record. I have also some workers which I have had since 1875.

    When you think about it, keeping an ant alive for 14 years is quite a remarkable feat. After all, it's not like keeping a dog alive for 14 years. For one thing, it's hard to lose or misplace a dog on your desk, and it's even harder to flatten one accidentally under a coffee cup. And it's not like there's a tremendous support system out there for ant owners—all-night ant veterinary services, for example, or ant toys and treats at the local grocery store. I doubt that too many small animal clinics, name notwithstanding, will see ant patients. And it's a lot harder to ignore a dog if you have forgotten to feed it or take it for a walk. What makes this feat even more impressive is that Lord Avebury was an extremely busy guy who had many things to do in life other than look after a geriatric ant. Before becoming the Right Honorable Lord Avebury, he was Sir John Lubbock, DCC, LLD, MD, FRS, VPCS, FGS, FZS, FSA, and FES. He belonged to no fewer than two dozen scientific societies, spread out among seven countries on three continents. I can't help wondering what friends or relations he might have prevailed upon to look in on his ant while he was making the rounds of scientific meetings.

    It's no wonder that claims for insect longevity records are few and far between. They're not nonexistent, though. Not long after Lord Avebury's book came out, Ferris (1919) reported finding a single nymph of Margarodes vitium alive in a waxy cyst sonic 17 years after the specimen was deposited in the Stanford collection of Coccidae. E. Gorton Linsely (1943) reported 12 instances in which Buprestis aurenta, a woodboring beetle, emerged from structural wood in walls, floors, doors, and stairway handrails, anywhere from 10 to 26 years after the structures were built, in some cases struggling through linoleum to do so. Most recently, Jerry Powell (1989) reported that more than 180 adult yucca moths emerged from cocoons dating back to 1969, after 16 to 17 years in a quiescent diapause state. These cocoons had accumulated a lot of miles, moving from their childhood home in Nevada, to the Berkeley campus for a year, and then to the University of California Russell Reserve in Contra Costa, California. Those cocoons that had not produced an adult by 1985 were partitioned for a while among an outdoor cage at the Russell Reserve, an outdoor cage at Blodgett Forest in El Dorado County, California, and a mobile laboratory on the Berkeley campus. Eventually, all were reunited back in Berkeley for the final emergence.

    It would be difficult to judge which feat was more impressive—keeping track of 180 yucca moth larvae for 17 years, or keeping an adult ant alive for 14 years. On one hand, the diapausing larvae don't need to be fed and an adult ant does; on the other hand, while an adult ant is fairly responsive, it would be an almost overwhelming temptation to cut through the cocoons every five years or so just to see if their occupants were still alive. I am fairly certain I could not have accomplished either feat. I can't even keep track of a Sharpie marker on my desk for more than a week.

    It must be said at this juncture that in none of these studies of insect longevity did the investigators tamper with the processes of nature. Studies aimed at prolonging the lifespan of insects don't figure prominently in most entomology programs, the vast majority of which have exactly the opposite goal. But there is one group of scientists who for years have done everything they can to make insects live longer. If you haven't been reading journals such as Age or Experimental Gerontology, then you may not have seen these studies. It turns out that there are many people who test theories of aging with insects. This is not surprising from an experimentalist point of view, when you think about it; practically speaking, it's nice to be able to detect a 50% increase in lifespan when that increase translates to a few days. Comparable studies of long-lived Amazon parrots or Galapagos tortoises could run a century and a half or longer, which far exceeds the average funding cycle of most federal agencies. From this perspective, Clunio maritimus could be the ideal subject—the so-called one-hour midge has an adult lifespan of about an hour, give or take 30 minutes. Most people in this area, however, use other flies, mostly Drosophila melanogaster, which live a positively Methusaleh-like month or more as adults. Among the myriad substances tested and found to prolong the lifespan of these flies are cortisone, hydrocortisone, aspirin, triamcinolone), meclofenoxate, sodium thiazolidine-4-carboxylate, 2-ethyl-6-methyl-3-hydroxy-pyridine, ethidium bromide, lactic acid, diiodomethane, sodium hypophosphite, vitamin E, and innumerable others too obscure to mention.

    One has to wonder what Lord Avebury would have thought about using artificial means to prolong insect life. Would he have resorted to any means possible to extend the lifespan of his ant? How long can an ant actually live, if assisted? Evidently it's still very much an open question. With all of this newfound gerontological knowledge in hand, I just might go ahead and try to answer that question with a study of my own. I'd start right away, too, except that I need to write down a few things first and I can't seem to find my Sharpie marker....

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Table of Contents

How Entomologists See Insects 3
How the World Sees Insects 65
How Entomologists See Themselves 147
How an Entomologist Sees Science 207
References 267
Index 281
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