For Love of Insects

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Overview

Imagine beetles ejecting defensive sprays as hot as boiling water; female moths holding their mates for ransom; caterpillars disguising themselves as flowers by fastening petals to their bodies; termites emitting a viscous glue to rally fellow soldiers--and you will have entered an insect world once beyond imagining, a world observed and described down to its tiniest astonishing detail by Thomas Eisner. The story of a lifetime of such minute explorations, For Love of Insects celebrates the small creatures that have emerged triumphant on the planet, the beneficiaries of extraordinary evolutionary inventiveness and unparalleled reproductive capacity.

To understand the success of insects is to appreciate our own shortcomings, Eisner tells us, but never has a reckoning been such a pleasure. Recounting exploits and discoveries in his lab at Cornell and in the field in Uruguay, Australia, Panama, Europe, and North America, Eisner time and again demonstrates how inquiry into the survival strategies of an insect leads to clarifications beyond the expected; insects are revealed as masters of achievement, forms of life worthy of study and respect from even the most recalcitrant entomophobe. Filled with descriptions of his ingenious experiments and illustrated with photographs unmatched for their combination of scientific content and delicate beauty, Eisner's book makes readers participants in the grand adventure of discovery on a scale infinitesimally small, and infinitely surprising.

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Editorial Reviews

Booklist

Although insects are not usually the stars of popular-science writing, this engaging look at how one scientist studies their lives may add them to the most-requested lists of science- and animal-loving readers.
— Nancy Bent

New Scientist

For Love of Insects is especially valuable because it explains the steps missing from the research reports in Nature and Science: [Eisner] tells the story from first noticing a bug on a walk in the woods, through experiments and analytical chemistry, to a final understanding of each phenomenon...For Love of Insects is a fascinating introduction to a world we poor humans—barely able to detect most chemicals—seldom notice.
— Jonathan Beard

Boston Globe

[Eisner's] new book is a personal memoir of a lifetime in science, engagingly written and stunningly illustrated with photographs of insects doing astonishing things...What makes Eisner a world-class entomologist is not access to million-dollar scientific instruments, but a mind that never stops asking 'Why?'
— Chet Raymo

Bloomsbury Review

This is one of the best nature titles in the last several years.
— Kim Long

Los Angeles Times

Prepare to be amazed. Brimming with enthusiasm, Eisner reveals a world of unbelievable majesty and complexity in the simplest of insects. The photographs alone are worth the price of the book, but the text crackles with the electricity of a brilliant genius at work, as Eisner leads the reader from simple observation to major scientific breakthrough. In fact this book should be required reading for every biology student because it illuminates the basic principle that passion and curiosity are the twin pillars of all great science.
— David Lukas

New York Times Book Review
An absorbing story of Eisner's career as a professor of chemical ecology (a discipline he helped found), interwoven with a passionate celebration of his subject--the lowly insect--and countless did-you-know's from the world of entomology.
Natural History

In his new book, For Love of Insects, Eisner describes a lifetime of field observations and laboratory experiments on an amazingly broad sampling of the class Insecta, together with the rest of the terrestrial arthropods. Along the way, he is a font of information about the workings of myriad biological adaptations. Together with the book's exquisite and detailed photographs...Eisner's text is the research retrospective of a self-described 'incorrigible entomophile'—one of the world's most visible and admired entomologists.
— Robert L. Smith

Science

Not only does [Eisner] describe discoveries with a richness and enthusiasm long absent from contemporary literature (where every word counts and is counted), but he interlaces the chronology of his exploration with relevant personal reflections. The resulting bildungsroman portrays the scientist as hunter in hot pursuit of new findings...With its vivid descriptions and beautiful images of insect life, this book should entice the interest and support of readers from all backgrounds.
— Ian T. Baldwin

Nature

The book is well written and beautifully illustrated with colour photographs, the majority taken by the author...Throughout the text one is reminded of the pleasure that the author derives from discovery. Anyone reading this book will themselves embark upon a journey of discovery and come to share, if only at arm's length, Tom's love of insect's and the wonders of nature.
— Jeremy N. McNeil

Scientific American
The findings [Eisner] describes are intriguing--all the more so in that they provide the scaffolding on which we see at work the mind of one of our most distinguished scientists and naturalists. Exquisitely illustrated with photographs, most taken by Eisner, who is widely admired for his photography, the book is written in a style that is conversational, witty and graphic. Beautiful to look at and beautiful to read.
Orion

This is the sort of book that you want to read out loud to complete strangers. Rarely has the manic curiosity of a naturalist's scientific mind been so clearly revealed as in this journey with Thomas Eisner...As the title suggests, this book reflects sheer enthusiasm and passion for bugs, and the reading of it is like a wild ride with a brilliant researcher...For Love of Insects marvelously captures the spirit of the naturalist mind and suggests how we might view the natural world with renewed curiosity and excitement. If this book could be required reading for biology students, the result would be a new generation of eager, brilliant naturalists.
— David Lukas

American Scientist

Eisner's work, summarized for the first time in this elegantly written and beautifully illustrated book, presents a coherent picture of a world little known even to many biologists.
— William A. Shear

Choice

After 45 years at Cornell [Eisner] has written a fascinating book of stories about some of his most interesting discoveries and how they came about. One can read about bombardier beetles that blast their attackers with hot benzoquinones, millipedes that tie up marauding ants with minute grappling hooks, and sundew plants that capture their insect prey with sticky secretions...This very readable book has a great number of outstanding color and black-and-white photographs that are themselves remarkably interesting.
— R. C. Graves

Times Literary Supplement

Eisner's book compels and fascinates at a variety of levels. It probes the ways in which insects use chemicals, and documents the ways in which an investigator poses the questions and teases out the answers...He tells his stories in the most accessible way...The sheer elegance of his approach is spellbinding. And the photographs that document his explorations are remarkable—every experimental tale here is beautifully illustrated.
— Gaden S. Robinson

BBC Wildlife
At the start of his career as a professional biologist, Thomas Eisner noticed that hardly anyone had looked at how insects defend themselves against the many animals that want to eat them...Over the next 50 years, his work as a kind of 'chemical biologist' opened up a miniature world brimming with subterfuge and weaponry, some subtle, some simply vicious. This book takes us through his most exciting discoveries and reveals a lot about the man behind one of the more famous names in biology.
Times Higher Education Supplement

If you want to understand what drives a man to spend his entire adult life researching an apparently obscure topic, you should read For Love of Insects. In this inspiring book, Thomas Eisner recalls his colleagues and his insect subjects with genuine affection, and the effect on the reader is equally warming...Fascinating stories of how biological mysteries were unravelled by painstaking observation and experimentation.
— Graham Elmes

Audubon Naturalist News

This book is simultaneously a fascinating exploration of insect defenses and a personal account of the process of scientific discovery. Eisner relates…intricate stories of arthropod defense. While doing so he also gives the reader an understanding of how scientists go through the process of observing phenomena, developing and testing hypothesis, and finally achieving an understanding of what's going on…Eisner has produced a book that is especially a delight for the insect enthusiast, but also should interest the general naturalist.
— Cliff Fairweather

Entomologist's Record
The reviewer is well known for his dislike of the self-congratulatory style of presentation that is a feature of many books from 'across the pond'; he also has little knowledge of, and even less interest in, the New World entomological fauna. How surprising that he actually liked this well-illustrated book by Thomas Eisner! Dr. Eisner is Professor of Chemical Ecology at Cornell University and a great deal of this book reveals this fact. However, the reader should not be put off by this fact and I suggest that the style of the book actually works in the favour of the layman understanding some of the more complex matters presented.
Southeastern Naturalist
A world-renowned expert on insects takes the reader on a fascinating journey into his world in this lively and engrossing book. Each of the ten chapters tells a different story of entomological mystery and imaginative research, illustrated with stunning photography and spanning much of a productive research career. An entertaining read highly recommended!
BioScience

For Love of Insects contains enough depth and description to engage even the most dedicated entomologist, yet because the material is presented in Eisner's engaging style, the reader never gets lost in a maze of scientific jargon...I think it would be hard for any reader to come away from this book without sharing in the author's sense of wonder at the amazing ways in which insects have evolved to defend, mate, and live. With fewer and fewer people engaged in the study of biology and natural history, this book could serve to explain to nonscientists why insects deserve respect.
— Scott Hoffman Black

The Journal of the Entomological Society of New South Wales Inc

Apart from being a most enjoyable read for an entomologist, For Love of Insects describes a long list of important discoveries in arthropods' chemical defence systems and other fascinating relationships between insects and plants that would be useful background for students in a number of entomological and ecological fields. Thomas Eisner deserves the epithet "modern Fabre" for his long-lasting investigations of arthropod behaviour, in particular chemical defence mechanisms.

— Barbara May

Diane Ackerman
The world has eagerly awaited these enchanting tales of insect life, brimming with discovery, insight, and wry humor. They're a master entomologist's masterwork. The photographs are also extraordinary, both illuminating and exquisitely beautiful.
Paul Ehrlich
I don't know whether I like the text or the photographs of For Love of Insects better. The former is brilliant, the product of the dean of chemical ecology and a world-renowned expert on insects. The latter are spectacular, the work of an outstanding photographer--once again Tom Eisner. No naturalist or natural scientist will want to be without this book. Indeed, if everyone would take the time to read it and look at the amazing pictures our society would benefit greatly from an enhanced appreciation of the insect world.
Lawrence Weschler
Love of insects? Hell, that's barely the half of it! Better Tom Eisner had called this book Love of Life and the Lively of progeny and all provenance! With boundless verve and grace and marvel and delight, Tom Eisner proves himself, across these dazzling pages, to be one of the all-time great biophiliacs. Ah, the blessing, for the rest of us, to be alive alongside him!
Oliver Sacks
There are few books which present the fullness of a life in science as powerfully, as modestly, and as enchantingly as this one. The excitement of Tom Eisner's fundamental investigations are mingled with vivid descriptions of his many other loves and enthusiasms--for music and literature no less than for the natural world--in seamless and beautiful prose. For Love of Insects is not only a delight to read, but, with its amazing photographs, a visual feast, too.
Booklist - Nancy Bent
Although insects are not usually the stars of popular-science writing, this engaging look at how one scientist studies their lives may add them to the most-requested lists of science- and animal-loving readers.
New Scientist - Jonathan Beard
For Love of Insects is especially valuable because it explains the steps missing from the research reports in Nature and Science: [Eisner] tells the story from first noticing a bug on a walk in the woods, through experiments and analytical chemistry, to a final understanding of each phenomenon...For Love of Insects is a fascinating introduction to a world we poor humans--barely able to detect most chemicals--seldom notice.
Boston Globe - Chet Raymo
[Eisner's] new book is a personal memoir of a lifetime in science, engagingly written and stunningly illustrated with photographs of insects doing astonishing things...What makes Eisner a world-class entomologist is not access to million-dollar scientific instruments, but a mind that never stops asking 'Why?'
Bloomsbury Review - Kim Long
This is one of the best nature titles in the last several years.
Los Angeles Times - David Lukas
This is the sort of book that you want to read out loud to complete strangers. Rarely has the manic curiosity of a naturalist's scientific mind been so clearly revealed as in this journey with Thomas Eisner...As the title suggests, this book reflects sheer enthusiasm and passion for bugs, and the reading of it is like a wild ride with a brilliant researcher...For Love of Insects marvelously captures the spirit of the naturalist mind and suggests how we might view the natural world with renewed curiosity and excitement. If this book could be required reading for biology students, the result would be a new generation of eager, brilliant naturalists.
New York Times Book Review - Derek Bickerton
Have you ever been squirted by a vinegaroon? Spent a night alone outdoors in the Arizona desert? Staged a pitched battle between ants and termites? (The termites took heavy losses, but the ants retreated under fire from their biological weapon, a chemical spray containing complex diterpenes.) If the answer's no, enlarge your horizons by reading Thomas Eisner's For Love of Insects...A fascinating and highly unusual book...These and many more of nature's mysteries are unraveled in Eisner's inimitable style--charmingly modest, brimming with enthusiasm and shot with flashes of endearing naïveté...Anyone fascinated by the endless diversity of nature, who prefers quirky fact to highfalutin theory or who simply likes to share someone else's passion, will find this book a delight.
Natural History - Robert L. Smith
In his new book, For Love of Insects, Eisner describes a lifetime of field observations and laboratory experiments on an amazingly broad sampling of the class Insecta, together with the rest of the terrestrial arthropods. Along the way, he is a font of information about the workings of myriad biological adaptations. Together with the book's exquisite and detailed photographs...Eisner's text is the research retrospective of a self-described 'incorrigible entomophile'--one of the world's most visible and admired entomologists.
Science - Ian T. Baldwin
Not only does [Eisner] describe discoveries with a richness and enthusiasm long absent from contemporary literature (where every word counts and is counted), but he interlaces the chronology of his exploration with relevant personal reflections. The resulting bildungsroman portrays the scientist as hunter in hot pursuit of new findings...With its vivid descriptions and beautiful images of insect life, this book should entice the interest and support of readers from all backgrounds.
Nature - Jeremy N. McNeil
The book is well written and beautifully illustrated with colour photographs, the majority taken by the author...Throughout the text one is reminded of the pleasure that the author derives from discovery. Anyone reading this book will themselves embark upon a journey of discovery and come to share, if only at arm's length, Tom's love of insect's and the wonders of nature.
American Scientist - William A. Shear
Eisner's work, summarized for the first time in this elegantly written and beautifully illustrated book, presents a coherent picture of a world little known even to many biologists.
Choice - R. C. Graves
After 45 years at Cornell [Eisner] has written a fascinating book of stories about some of his most interesting discoveries and how they came about. One can read about bombardier beetles that blast their attackers with hot benzoquinones, millipedes that tie up marauding ants with minute grappling hooks, and sundew plants that capture their insect prey with sticky secretions...This very readable book has a great number of outstanding color and black-and-white photographs that are themselves remarkably interesting.
Times Literary Supplement - Gaden S. Robinson
Eisner's book compels and fascinates at a variety of levels. It probes the ways in which insects use chemicals, and documents the ways in which an investigator poses the questions and teases out the answers...He tells his stories in the most accessible way...The sheer elegance of his approach is spellbinding. And the photographs that document his explorations are remarkable--every experimental tale here is beautifully illustrated.
Times Higher Education Supplement - Graham Elmes
If you want to understand what drives a man to spend his entire adult life researching an apparently obscure topic, you should read For Love of Insects. In this inspiring book, Thomas Eisner recalls his colleagues and his insect subjects with genuine affection, and the effect on the reader is equally warming...Fascinating stories of how biological mysteries were unravelled by painstaking observation and experimentation.
Audubon Naturalist News - Cliff Fairweather
This book is simultaneously a fascinating exploration of insect defenses and a personal account of the process of scientific discovery. Eisner relates…intricate stories of arthropod defense. While doing so he also gives the reader an understanding of how scientists go through the process of observing phenomena, developing and testing hypothesis, and finally achieving an understanding of what's going on…Eisner has produced a book that is especially a delight for the insect enthusiast, but also should interest the general naturalist.
BioScience - Scott Hoffman Black
For Love of Insects contains enough depth and description to engage even the most dedicated entomologist, yet because the material is presented in Eisner's engaging style, the reader never gets lost in a maze of scientific jargon...I think it would be hard for any reader to come away from this book without sharing in the author's sense of wonder at the amazing ways in which insects have evolved to defend, mate, and live. With fewer and fewer people engaged in the study of biology and natural history, this book could serve to explain to nonscientists why insects deserve respect.
The Journal of the Entomological Society of New South Wales Inc - Barbara May
Apart from being a most enjoyable read for an entomologist, For Love of Insects describes a long list of important discoveries in arthropods' chemical defence systems and other fascinating relationships between insects and plants that would be useful background for students in a number of entomological and ecological fields. Thomas Eisner deserves the epithet "modern Fabre" for his long-lasting investigations of arthropod behaviour, in particular chemical defence mechanisms.
Orion
This is the sort of book that you want to read out loud to complete strangers. Rarely has the manic curiosity of a naturalist's scientific mind been so clearly revealed as in this journey with Thomas Eisner...As the title suggests, this book reflects sheer enthusiasm and passion for bugs, and the reading of it is like a wild ride with a brilliant researcher...For Love of Insects marvelously captures the spirit of the naturalist mind and suggests how we might view the natural world with renewed curiosity and excitement. If this book could be required reading for biology students, the result would be a new generation of eager, brilliant naturalists.
— David Lukas
Los Angeles Times
Prepare to be amazed. Brimming with enthusiasm, Eisner reveals a world of unbelievable majesty and complexity in the simplest of insects. The photographs alone are worth the price of the book, but the text crackles with the electricity of a brilliant genius at work, as Eisner leads the reader from simple observation to major scientific breakthrough. In fact this book should be required reading for every biology student because it illuminates the basic principle that passion and curiosity are the twin pillars of all great science.
— David Lukas
Bloomsbury Review
This is one of the best nature titles in the last several years.
— Kim Long
Science
Not only does [Eisner] describe discoveries with a richness and enthusiasm long absent from contemporary literature (where every word counts and is counted), but he interlaces the chronology of his exploration with relevant personal reflections. The resulting bildungsroman portrays the scientist as hunter in hot pursuit of new findings...With its vivid descriptions and beautiful images of insect life, this book should entice the interest and support of readers from all backgrounds.
— Ian T. Baldwin
Choice
After 45 years at Cornell [Eisner] has written a fascinating book of stories about some of his most interesting discoveries and how they came about. One can read about bombardier beetles that blast their attackers with hot benzoquinones, millipedes that tie up marauding ants with minute grappling hooks, and sundew plants that capture their insect prey with sticky secretions...This very readable book has a great number of outstanding color and black-and-white photographs that are themselves remarkably interesting.
— R. C. Graves
Nature
The book is well written and beautifully illustrated with colour photographs, the majority taken by the author...Throughout the text one is reminded of the pleasure that the author derives from discovery. Anyone reading this book will themselves embark upon a journey of discovery and come to share, if only at arm's length, Tom's love of insect's and the wonders of nature.
— Jeremy N. McNeil
Booklist
Although insects are not usually the stars of popular-science writing, this engaging look at how one scientist studies their lives may add them to the most-requested lists of science- and animal-loving readers.
— Nancy Bent
Boston Globe
[Eisner's] new book is a personal memoir of a lifetime in science, engagingly written and stunningly illustrated with photographs of insects doing astonishing things...What makes Eisner a world-class entomologist is not access to million-dollar scientific instruments, but a mind that never stops asking 'Why?'
— Chet Raymo
New Scientist
For Love of Insects is especially valuable because it explains the steps missing from the research reports in Nature and Science: [Eisner] tells the story from first noticing a bug on a walk in the woods, through experiments and analytical chemistry, to a final understanding of each phenomenon...For Love of Insects is a fascinating introduction to a world we poor humans--barely able to detect most chemicals--seldom notice.
— Jonathan Beard
Natural History
In his new book, For Love of Insects, Eisner describes a lifetime of field observations and laboratory experiments on an amazingly broad sampling of the class Insecta, together with the rest of the terrestrial arthropods. Along the way, he is a font of information about the workings of myriad biological adaptations. Together with the book's exquisite and detailed photographs...Eisner's text is the research retrospective of a self-described 'incorrigible entomophile'--one of the world's most visible and admired entomologists.
— Robert L. Smith
American Scientist
Eisner's work, summarized for the first time in this elegantly written and beautifully illustrated book, presents a coherent picture of a world little known even to many biologists.
— William A. Shear
Times Literary Supplement
Eisner's book compels and fascinates at a variety of levels. It probes the ways in which insects use chemicals, and documents the ways in which an investigator poses the questions and teases out the answers...He tells his stories in the most accessible way...The sheer elegance of his approach is spellbinding. And the photographs that document his explorations are remarkable--every experimental tale here is beautifully illustrated.
— Gaden S. Robinson
BioScience
For Love of Insects contains enough depth and description to engage even the most dedicated entomologist, yet because the material is presented in Eisner's engaging style, the reader never gets lost in a maze of scientific jargon...I think it would be hard for any reader to come away from this book without sharing in the author's sense of wonder at the amazing ways in which insects have evolved to defend, mate, and live. With fewer and fewer people engaged in the study of biology and natural history, this book could serve to explain to nonscientists why insects deserve respect.
— Scott Hoffman Black
Audubon Naturalist News
This book is simultaneously a fascinating exploration of insect defenses and a personal account of the process of scientific discovery. Eisner relates…intricate stories of arthropod defense. While doing so he also gives the reader an understanding of how scientists go through the process of observing phenomena, developing and testing hypothesis, and finally achieving an understanding of what's going on…Eisner has produced a book that is especially a delight for the insect enthusiast, but also should interest the general naturalist.
— Cliff Fairweather
Times Higher Education Supplement
If you want to understand what drives a man to spend his entire adult life researching an apparently obscure topic, you should read For Love of Insects. In this inspiring book, Thomas Eisner recalls his colleagues and his insect subjects with genuine affection, and the effect on the reader is equally warming...Fascinating stories of how biological mysteries were unravelled by painstaking observation and experimentation.
— Graham Elmes
Entomologist's Record
The reviewer is well known for his dislike of the self-congratulatory style of presentation that is a feature of many books from "across the pond"; he also has little knowledge if, and even less interest in, the New World entomological fauna. How surprising that he actually liked this well-illustrated book by Thomas Eisner! Dr. Eisner is Professor of Chemical Ecology at Cornell University and a great deal of this book reveals this fact. However, the reader should not be put off by this fact and I suggest that the style of the book actually works in the favour of the layman understanding some of the more complex matters presented.…This book is well presented…and at just under twenty quid [$29.95] it is not a bad price by modern standards. Worth adding to the letter to Santa Claus.
The Journal of the Entomological Society of New South Wales Inc
Apart from being a most enjoyable read for an entomologist, For Love of Insects describes a long list of important discoveries in arthropods' chemical defence systems and other fascinating relationships between insects and plants that would be useful background for students in a number of entomological and ecological fields. Thomas Eisner deserves the epithet "modern Fabre" for his long-lasting investigations of arthropod behaviour, in particular chemical defence mechanisms.

— Barbara May

The New York Times
Have you ever been squirted by a vinegaroon? Spent a night alone outdoors in the Arizona desert? Staged a pitched battle between ants and termites? (The termites took heavy losses, but the ants retreated under fire from their biological weapon, a chemical spray containing complex diterpenes.) If the answer's no, enlarge your horizons by reading Thomas Eisner's For Love of Insects. Eisner, the J. G. Schurman professor of chemical ecology (a discipline he helped found) at Cornell University, has interwoven the story of his career with the results of his investigations to create a fascinating and highly unusual book. — Derek Bickerton
Library Journal
Eisner's entomological odyssey began 45 years ago with investigations into beetles that spray hot defensive chemicals, and it continues to this day after scores of extraordinary discoveries (moths that ooze foam when handled, termites that squirt ants with sticky fluids, and beetle larvae that carry their feces on their backs). Sound like science fiction? These stories are real. And they are told by the remarkable Cornell University scientist who documented them. As he explains here, Eisner and his collaborators seek to understand how insects and other arthropods use chemicals to defend themselves against predators and how some predators succeed in eating them anyway. Scientifically accurate and documented by a 22-page bibliography, this artfully written narrative of quest, discovery, and ingenious experimentation will intrigue the general reader and biologist alike. The numerous stories are grouped by common theme into ten chapters. Recommended for public and academic libraries.-Annette Aiello, Smithsonian Tropical Research Inst., Panama Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674018273
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 10/24/2005
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 464
  • Product dimensions: 8.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Thomas Eisner was J.G. Schurman Professor of Chemical Ecology at Cornell University. In 1994 he was awarded the National Medal of Science. His film Secret Weapons won the Grand Award at the New York Film Festival and was named Best Science Film by the British Association for the Advancement of Science.

Edward O. Wilson is Pellegrino University Professor, Emeritus, at Harvard University. In addition to two Pulitzer Prizes (one of which he shares with Bert Hölldobler), Wilson has won many scientific awards, including the National Medal of Science and the Crafoord Prize of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

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Read an Excerpt

For Love of Insects


By Thomas Eiser

Harvard University Press

ISBN: 0-674-01181-3


Chapter One

Bombardier

Most naturalists keep good diaries. I don't. Therefore I will never be able to pinpoint the day I came upon my first bombardier beetle (Brachinus species; see facing page). It was in Lexington, Massachusetts, and I remember the meadow well, except that it probably doesn't exist as a meadow any more. But that is another story.

It must have been in the summer of 1955, the summer I was writing my doctoral thesis, and probably in early June. I was on my knees, uncovering rocks, and ready for any find, particularly if it involved an unfamiliar insect with unusual chemical talents. My thesis had dealt with the anatomy of ants, but I was on the lookout for something new. All my life I had been passionately interested in insects so there was no question that I'd stick it out with bugs. But I also had a very genuine interest in chemistry, and somewhere in the back of my mind was the thought that these two interests could be combined. I didn't realize it at once, but in stumbling upon those little beetles I had struck gold. Bombardier beetles were precisely the sort of champion chemists I was looking for. My having encountered them when I did was the luckiest of breaks.

At that time, while I was a graduate student, there had been some fascinating developments in the interface of entomology and chemistry. Although the term pheromone to designate a chemical signal had notyet been coined, it was becoming increasingly clear that insects flirt by means of chemicals. Female moths, when ripe and ready, announce that fact by emitting a volatile secretion that attracts the male. Word had it that German chemists were hot on the trail of one such attractant, with the intent of identifying the molecule or molecules involved. And in addition there was the exciting research on insect hormones, those remarkable internal chemical messengers that, operating at infinitesimal concentrations, control growth and the transformations in body form known as metamorphosis. An insect hormone, ecdysone, had just been isolated in pure form, and I remember being tremendously taken by a seminar given by Peter Karlson, the German investigator who had been responsible for the isolation. It was now within the realm of possibility, I thought, to decipher the chemical language of insects. Secretly, I wanted to become one of the cryptographers.

Being at the Biological Laboratories at Harvard at that time was inspiring. Two flights down from my room was the laboratory of Carrol M. Williams, one of the great pioneers of insect endocrinology. Carrol, who was to become a close friend later in life, had been my undergraduate adviser at Harvard and teacher in comparative physiology. I learned about bioassays in his course, about ways for testing quantitatively for the biological activity of a chemical substance. And then there was Ed Wilson, fellow graduate student and most inspiring of friends, with whom I had published my first technical paper and shared countless interests.

Ed was himself becoming interested in chemical communication, and he had begun to explore the role of pheromones in ants. He had discovered the gland responsible for producing the trail substance of certain ants, the substance by which foraging ants lay out linear paths to guide nestmates to newly found food sources. He also had devised some clever experiments that showed that individual ants, when assaulted, emit chemicals that alert nestmates nearby to the disturbance and enlist them to come help with the problem. He had shown further that in ant colonies corpses are recognized by certain fatty acids they contain. By tagging various inert objects with such fatty acids he could induce the ants to transport the objects to the graveyards of the colony, as they typically do with corpses. It was an impressive demonstration of the power of the bioassay.

I myself had had experiences that predisposed me for the study of insect chemistry. For one thing, my father was a chemist. He was one of the last graduate students of Fritz Haber, the Nobel laureate who first synthesized ammonia from its constitutive elements. My father would have loved it if I became a chemist, but he was reconciled to the notion that I was destined to study bugs. Yet there was a subtle influence my father was to have on me, and it relates to his having been an amateur perfumer. Wherever we lived before settling in the United States, whether in Spain or Uruguay, my father always had a basement lab in which he concocted, for friends and relatives, perfumes, skin lotions, sun tan oils, and colognes. The house was often mysteriously redolent as a result, which as a little boy I found wonderful. As I grew older, though, I became interested in the odors themselves and in the reasons why they might exist in nature. At the age of 13 in Uruguay, I hadn't read Darwin yet. In fact, evolution hadn't even been mentioned in the biology course I had taken. But quite instinctively I had begun to think in adaptationist terms. What does the fragrance of lavender do for the lavender plant itself? I don't know when the idea occurred to me that plant odors might be defensive, but I know I didn't get the idea from books.

In our summer house in Uruguay we had an icebox that was periodically invaded by ants. Following local custom, we immersed the legs of the icebox in tin cans filled to the height of a centimeter or so with kerosene or turpentine. Either kept the ants out, but turpentine worked better. So why should turpentine be a good insect repellent? I remember putting two and two together when I learned that turpentine is derived from pine resin. The resin must be the pine's defensive juice! I think I must have been 14 or 15 when I did an actual experiment in which I showed that a dab of pine resin placed in the path of ants would cause them to shy away.

I am sure that I owe it to my father that I became so conscious of odors. But I was apparently "nasal" right from the start. My parents recalled that when I was little I could tell from the scent that lingered in the coat closet in the morning that my grandmother had visited the night before. But now, as a teenager, I was coming to realize that I could really learn things from my nose. I was already collecting insects by then, but what had begun as a hobby at the age of 8, and had been directed almost exclusively to the capture of butterflies, was now developing into an interest in live insects, irrespective of kind. Quite casually at first, but with ever increasing fascination, I noted that insects, ever so often, have odors. Some were faintly scented all of the time. Others gave off odors when you handled them, from fluids they emitted when disturbed. In the latter case the odors were often pungent, and I learned to sniff insects carefully lest I end up sneezing and coughing. I also came to realize that I had a good memory for smells. Insect odors seemed to come in categories. Many ants, for instance, had the same acidic odor. I did not know then that this was well documented, and that as early as 1670 a British naturalist by the name of John Wray had published a paper on the acid "juyce" of ants.

I was struck also by one particular odor, very noxious, that I came to associate with millipedes, and with one particular arachnid, a daddy-longlegs, that I had collected in numbers in Atlantida, the seaside resort near Montevideo where we had our summer house. That odor was like none other that I had encountered and it came from juices that the millipedes discharged from pores along the sides of the body and the daddy-long-legs emitted from the edge of its carapace. There was something peculiar about these fluids. They stained the fingers brown, like iodine. The effect was not immediate, but it was invariable: handle any number of those Uruguayan millipedes or daddy-long-legs and within minutes you would end up with stained fingertips. I did not give much thought to these observations at the time, but filed them away in the memory bank. The bombardier beetle was to bring them back to mind.

* I KNEW THE MOMENT I turned over that rock and caught sight of those beetles that they were members of the family Carabidae, the so-called ground beetles. I had picked up many a carabid in my time, so I knew a bit about them. They are quick on their feet, but like most beetles not quick to take flight. They tend to scurry for cover, so if you want to catch them you have to be quick yourself. And I knew that as carabids they belong to that category of insects that give off odors when disturbed.

The ones under that rock were unlike any carabids I knew. With a reddish-brown body and blue iridescent wing covers, they were a pretty sight. And there were several beneath that stone, huddling close together. I had a vial in hand and made my move at once, but they dispersed in all directions and I managed to catch only one. I grasped it in my fingers and was about to put it in the vial when it emitted a series of distinctly audible pops that so startled me I nearly let go of it. I held it closer for a better look, and found that by giving it a squeeze I could cause it to pop again. I also noted that every time it popped it discharged a visible cloud from the rear, at the very moment that I felt a hot sensation in my fingers. I took a sniff and thought I recognized the familiar unpleasant odor of the millipedes and daddy-long-legs from Uruguay. Sure enough, when I checked my fingers after putting the beetle in the vial, there were brown spots on them. I decided then and there that this was a beetle I'd get to know.

I spent another hour or two in the meadow and managed to capture upward of a dozen of the beetles. I took them back to the Bio Labs, where I found I could maintain them in small plastic containers filled with soil, on a diet of freshly cut-up insect larvae supplemented with water. When I showed them to my friend and eventual Cornell colleague, William L. Brown Jr., who often set me straight on matters entomological, he said, "Oh, you've got yourself some bombardier beetles. They go pop when you pick them up and shoot out some real nasty stuff." Shoot they did indeed, and as I was to find out in the months ahead, they even aimed their discharges. The irony that it should have been in Lexington, Massachusetts, of all places, that I first heard those shots didn't strike me until later.

At about that time I had a visit from a young Uruguayan scientist who was working in the Chemistry Laboratories at Harvard only yards away from the Bio Labs. María Isabel Ardao had known my father in Uruguay and having heard that I was at Harvard stopped by to say hello. She had a fellowship and was working in the laboratories of Louis Fieser, the eminent organic chemist. It seemed she was studying an arachnid, an Uruguayan species that apparently produced an antibiotic. As she described the animal it became clear that she had been working on the very daddy-long-legs I remembered from Atlantida. I perked up because it was evidently the "juice" from that animal she and Fieser were trying to identify. When I asked whether they had succeeded she said that yes indeed, they had isolated two compounds, and that these turned out to be benzoquinones. Nasty stuff, she said. The work was being published, and they were calling the chemical mixture gonyleptidine, after the generic name of the animal.

So it was benzoquinones. Finally I had an idea of what that pungent odor was all about. My Uruguayan millipedes and my newly found bombardier beetles probably produced benzoquinones as well.

A second person I met coincidentally at the time was Louis M. Roth, an expert on cockroaches, who was working at the Army Quartermaster Research and Engineering Center outside Boston. He and Barbara Stay, a friend of mine who had recently obtained her Ph.D. at Harvard, had identified benzoquinones from the glands of a cockroach, Diploptera punctata. They thought the glands served a defensive purpose, but were not sure. Lou himself had earlier worked on some tiny beetles that also produced benzoquinones. They let me sniff Diploptera and the beetles, and there could be no doubt. It was the familiar stink again. I decided there had to be something very special about benzoquinones if so many insects and millipedes were making use of them.

I told Lou that I'd like to work on Diploptera and he gave me a cage full of them. Back at Harvard the first thing I did was to obtain some crystalline benzoquinones, which were available commercially. I found that there were all kinds of warnings on the labels, so I decided to be careful. "Toxic," one label said, "harmful by inhalation or contact with skin." Too late for that, I thought, given the dousing I had been getting from all those benzoquinone producers.

There were two things I wanted to do. First I wanted to see whether Diploptera ejected its secretion in response to provocation, and second I wanted to find out whether the secretion was repellent to its enemies.

* THE GLANDS of Diploptera were two small saclike structures opening about midway along the sides of the body. They connected to respiratory tubes in such a fashion that one could imagine the animal ejecting its benzoquinones by forcing air through the sacs. I thought I could smell benzoquinones when I handled the roaches but I had no visible evidence of emissions. Whatever Diploptera was ejecting, it was in too small a quantity or in too dispersed a form to see.

I decided I would develop a bioassay. I had obtained some cultures of protozoans, aquatic one-celled organisms, and found that the benzoquinones were hazardous to them as well. Addition of benzoquinone crystals to droplets of culture medium quickly killed the protozoans within. Crystals placed near a droplet caused the protozoans to shun the droplet surface. I thought that if I placed a microaquarium with a protozoan in a confined space with a Diploptera and monitored the behavior of the protozoan when I subjected the cockroach to a simulated attack, I might have devised an indirect way of telling whether benzoquinone discharge took place.

I built the necessary apparatus and the assay worked. I had rigged things so I could stimulate the roach with a warm probe while at the same time observing the microaquarium with a microscope. I had chosen a large protozoan, Spirostomum, as the target organism, and used only one per microaquarium. It became clear that for as long as the cockroach remained undisturbed, Spirostomum swam about actively in its "pool." But no sooner had the cockroach been prodded than the protozoan began showing surface avoidance. It gradually moved to increasingly greater depths within its confines, until the diffusing benzoquinones forced it to the very bottom and to its demise. The evidence was compelling.

Continues...


Excerpted from For Love of Insects by Thomas Eiser Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

  • Foreword by Edward O. Wilson
  • Prologue
  • 1. Bombardier
  • 2. Vinegaroons and Other Wizards
  • 3. Wonders from Wonderland
  • 4. Masters of Deception
  • 5. Ambulatory Spray Guns
  • 6. Tales from the Website
  • 7. The Circumventers
  • 8. The Opportunists
  • 9. The Love Potion
  • 10. The Sweet Smell of Success
  • Epilogue
  • Bibliography
  • Acknowledgments
  • Illustration Credits

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