Bugged: The Insects Who Rule the World and the People Obsessed with Them

Bugged: The Insects Who Rule the World and the People Obsessed with Them

by David MacNeal


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Bugged: The Insects Who Rule the World and the People Obsessed with Them by David MacNeal

"Creepy, beautiful, icky and amazing." —Penny Le Couteur, author of Napoleon's Button

Insects have been shaping our ecological world and plant life for over 400 million years. In fact, our world is essentially run by bugs—there are 1.4 billion for every human on the planet. In Bugged, journalist David MacNeal takes us on an off-beat scientific journey that weaves together history, travel, and culture in order to define our relationship with these mini-monsters.

MacNeal introduces a cast of bug-lovers—from a woman facilitating tarantula sex and an exterminator nursing bedbugs (on his own blood), to a kingpin of the black market insect trade and a “maggotologist”—who obsess over the crucial role insects play in our everyday lives.

Just like bugs, this book is global in its scope, diversity, and intrigue. Hands-on with pet beetles in Japan, releasing lab-raised mosquitoes in Brazil, beekeeping on a Greek island, or using urine and antlers as means of ancient pest control, MacNeal’s quest appeals to the squeamish and brave alike. Demonstrating insects’ amazingly complex mechanics, he strings together varied interactions we humans have with them, like extermination, epidemics, and biomimicry. And, when the journey comes to an end, MacNeal examines their commercial role in our world in an effort to help us ultimately cherish (and maybe even eat) bugs.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250095503
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 07/03/2017
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 640,302
Product dimensions: 5.70(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

DAVID MACNEAL is a journalist exploring the fringes of science, technology and culture. His articles have appeared in Wired, Arts Technica, VICE, and other publications. Aside from geeking out over comic books, he bakes exquisite pies (especially blueberry) and drinks an array of whiskeys. Sometimes the glasses contain bugs. He currently lives in Denver.

Read an Excerpt


A Cabinet of Curiosity

The corpse-colored door hides in plain sight among Soho's posh boutiques. I pass by it at first, missing the "107 Spring" address plaque in tarnished brass. Peering at the buzzer to verify the tenants, I spot the name Stevens. Written below in all caps and in Baskerville font, I spot the word ENTOMOLOGY.

Through the safety glass, a dark lanky figure appears at the top of a steep staircase. As he comes closer, I can see he's wearing camouflage cargo shorts, an octopus-emblazoned T-shirt, and strappy hiking sandals. This is Lawrence Forcella, or Lorenzo, who has invited me to this sequestered spot in Lower Manhattan. His stylishly bald head, beard, fat silver earrings, and charisma evoke a modern-day genie — an apropos reference given his daily feats. I say this because after he greets me, we go upstairs to the 400-square-foot room where Lorenzo and a handful of artisans breathe life into dead bugs.

"We process thousands of insects a year," he says as we walk past giant shadowboxes filled with "alive-ish" specimens in the former apartment. This shrine to biodiversity has an inherent ick factor. Gentle taxidermists — insect morticians who unfurl the insects' wings and reposition feeble antennae as if to gain clearer radio reception — display butterflies, centipedes, and katydids. In one day they get more intimate with exoskeletal body bits than you and I would in a lifetime.

The department is owned by, and catty-corner to, the Evolution Store — a Victorian naturalist's Shangri-la. Want to buy a fly's life cycle suspended in resin? No problem. In need of an African penis gourd? Pick a size. The clientele ranges from magazine photographers and preppy eight-year-olds spending birthday money on a human skull to Japanese businessmen brusquely pointing at bugs and purchasing the entire lot. And if Lorenzo oversees his team well, nature enthusiasts like filmmaker James Cameron will shell out upward of $10,000 for a display of beetles.

The Evolution Store established a stand-alone entomology department thanks to Lorenzo. Six months after beginning at the shop in 1997, he offered to pin insects instead of Evolution continuing to outsource insect displays. Lorenzo and his taxidermy crew operated in-store. Then Damien Hirst began buying thousands of pinned butterflies in 2005 to create kaleidoscope mandalas comprising a smattering of colors. That same year, Hirst ordered around 24,000 for what became compositions of stained-glass window mosaics. This required nearly 16 butterfly morticians working around the clock; instructions, costs, fumigation, and due dates are recorded in a "Bug Log."

Gradually, taxidermy employees relocated across the street to the store owner's apartment — where I'm standing now with Lorenzo. At some point Hirst, possibly their biggest client, began outsourcing butterflies elsewhere for cost efficiency; still, Evolution maintained its own separate entomology department for 10 years. But when Lorenzo sent me an e-mail about our planned insect anatomy lesson, he hesitantly alerted me that the room would shut down soon due to budget cuts. So I booked a flight. I wanted to know what exactly a bug was.

A taxidermist grabs her time card and punches out as Lorenzo preps this evening's specimen for pinning. The floorboards intermittently creak as I tour the dimly lit space. Metal cabinets near the front door contain plastic shoeboxes of unprocessed raw stock, each with a taxonomic label like ORTHOPTERA, PHASMATIDAE, or HOMOPTERA. The subdivisions and subsets for classification go on and on, and I'd rather not bore you with terms that sound like Hogwarts wizard spells. A rolled yoga mat lies in a shower-stall-turned-supply-closet. Ice in the kitchen's refrigerator usually has to come from a liquor store so it doesn't share the freezer occupants' "dead bug taste." And Lorenzo hunches over a workstation in a room fingerprinted by years of eclectic employees: a curled alien fetus in a jar, a sealed Insect Warrior action figure by Funtastic, Langstroth beehive frames with lived-in honeycombs, and a late-nineteenth-century "Quick Death" pesticide poster.

Under a cone of table lamp light, Lorenzo removes a giant water bug from a take-out food pan its been soaking in overnight. Originally dried, packaged, and shipped from a village in Thailand, the brown, ovular thing no larger than a plump kazoo is now limber and ready to be mounted for purchase. Working for almost 20 years at the Evolution Store has imbued Lorenzo with the acumen of a furniture salesman. He knows what you want to buy before you do. Collectors appreciate bug mechanics in wonderfully geeky ways, but your average Evolution customer goes for aesthetics, says Lorenzo. Are you an oak man or do you like walnut? Mahogany? What does your home look like? Someone with a "strong design sense," he says, might go for the India ink lines drawn on the egg-white wings of a rice paper butterfly. Whereas a customer with tattoos and a nose ring might be interested in a blood-sucking giant water bug.

Should the limbs on tonight's specimen stiffen, Lorenzo's pinning toolkit includes a syringe for injecting warm water to loosen said body parts. He's also equipped with a razor blade to slice underbellies for gut removal and a snuff spoon he finds especially useful for hollowing out goo from tarantula butts. Piped into his computer speakers is riot grrrl band L7, an '80s grunge precursor better known for throwing a bloody tampon at a rowdy crowd. "I admire their grit," Lorenzo says casually as he rubs alcohol over the water bug's back, blotching a paper towel with brown excess grease. Otherwise, the bug would "look like someone put cooking oil on it."

For those who haven't had the pleasure of meeting one, a giant water bug resembles a cockroach with flexing biceps. Its forelimbs have a finger-pinching function used to latch onto frogs and other aquatic animals in ponds or streams and occasionally onto human feet, hence their "toe-biter" sobriquet. Lorenzo prepares one now for today's lesson because New Yorkers tend to refer to cockroaches as water bugs, and it might sell during the summer. "Specifically in New York City they call them water bugs," Lorenzo clarifies, somewhat agitated. "I think people don't want to be reminded of the fact that they have gigantic-ass cockroaches living in their apartments." "Water bug" does sound prettier, I guess. And Floridians call roaches palmetto bugs. "A rose by any other name," as they say ...

My host, like many entomologists, is stereotypically peculiar. It's a profession held by people as strange and diverse as the bugs they study. Lorenzo stands out because he's equally brazen and charming, and unlike most in the field, he's completely self-educated.

"I'm not doing this for scientific purposes," he tells me. Certified individuals in the field focus on a specific branch of entomology. For example, a medical entomologist might find ways of stopping disease vectors like malaria-carrying mosquitoes. Or an agricultural specialist might find natural pesticides to combat the forest-decimating mountain pine beetle. "My own specialty," Lorenzo says, "is that I don't specialize." His passion goes beyond ecology. The bugs' intrinsic beauty takes precedence.

Lorenzo's fascination began at age four when he found a dead stag beetle as big as his hand on his friend's driveway in the Bronx — "one of those things burned into memory." When he showed his mom later that day, she took out a box that had a rhinoceros beetle his dad collected while stationed at a Virginian military base. "I realized these guys are all around us ... From then on I wanted every bug on the planet. Any time I saw bugs I just went crazy over them."

His collection ebbed and flowed for years, eventually falling victim to dermestid beetles. "The great irony of insect collecting," he laments, "is that if you don't properly store your insects, your insects will be eaten by insects." It's aggravating. A proper collection denotes the date and location of where insects were caught, so, borrowing Frank Krell's analogy, it's like finding your diary eaten by moths. (Although destruction of such evidence of the past may be welcomed.) After his bugs disintegrated into dusty mounds, he was discouraged for five years while in art school until he learned about a blow-out sale on bugs by New York–based insect dealer the Butterfly Company. Currently, Lorenzo possesses about 500,000 specimens he keeps in a separate apartment from his own in Hastings-on-Hudson.

Combining his skills as an illustrator and years observing live insects in their natural state, Lorenzo's pieces now seem to pop off the table — were it not for the meticulous outline of pins around their exoskeletons. You can't help but admire the symmetry and anatomy.

On the surface, insect bodies share a three–body segment structure, top to bottom: head, thorax, and abdomen. This makes sense, as the word "insect" also means "cut into." Three pairs of legs attach to the thorax. One pair of antennae perform important tasks like feeling, tasting, smelling, and hearing. And a respiratory system consisting of interconnecting tracheal tubes suck in air through body-segment openings called spiracles. I am not going to go deeper here, but if you did, you'd find a universe of intricacy.

"The first step with mounted specimens is the pin," Lorenzo says, bare-handedly sticking a pin through the giant water bug's thorax shield, aka scutellum. The average spring steel pin used for mounting is 0.45 millimeters in diameter, with a black enamel finish to prevent rusting and a rounded nylon head. Pushing said nylon head usually requires meager force, but when handling a tarantula specimen with urticating hairs — needlelike defense bristles — it gets painful. Lorenzo learned the hard way. While drying out tarantulas in a 150-degree oven for prep, he jabbed pins into cardboard without protective gloves, not realizing he was grinding urticating hair splinters into his flesh. He shakes his head. "My thumb itched for two years," he says. "Two fucking years!" He rubs the spot on his thumb. "It looked like there was pepper under my skin from so many broken hairs."

More pins decorate the water bug sitting on a porous Styrofoam sheet. It rests atop a piece of paper soaked with a khaki puddle of bug juice.

"It makes me pissed off when people view this as creepy," he says, encircling the bug with pins like a knife thrower. "I'll tell ya, the most annoying thing is when I say I'm an entomologist, and people are like, 'Ooo, like in Silence of the Lambs,'" and he starts nodding. "Yeah," he sarcastically replies, "I skin women." We laugh, and I can't help but break into singing the goth keyboard synth from "Goodbye Horses" played during the infamous cross-dress scene.

The conversation transitions to the John Fowles novel and movie The Collector, in which the kidnapper also happens to own a bunch of butterflies. "There's like a lot of negative stereotypes of entomologists and maybe even taxidermists," he says.

"Right?" I agree as he places the final pins around an unflinching leg. "I think it probably has to start with Norman —" Bates, we say in unison. I tell him about the unhealthy BDSM relationship with an entomologist in The Duke of Burgundy. He fires back with Woman in the Dunes, which is a psychosexual romance, again, with an entomologist as victim. My thought is that society in general is not keen on those who dabble with dead things. "The Brits view this very differently from the Americans," Lorenzo says. He mentions another movie, based on the A. S. Byatt novel, Angels and Insects, which takes place during the Victorian era. A man processes insect collections for England's affluent. It was during this time when key mediators between man and insect not only answered what a bug is, but helped expand the study into the smorgasbord of topics and concentrations seen today. These entophiles built the foundation for entomology. It was done with cabinets. Famous UK banker John Lubbock offered his observation of the period in an 1856 article in the Entomologist's Annual: "The present has been called the age of insects; this century at least might be called the age of collections of insects, and not of insects only, for we have collections of almost everything, of shells and stuffed birds, of ferns and flowers, of grasses and coins, of autographs and old china, of Assyrian marbles and even of postage stamps."

These were stored in what are called cabinets of curiosity. The Evolution Store emulates this tradition as does Parisian landmark store Deyrolle, established in 1831, which not only informed the trend but had a part in describing new species that bear its eponym today. Privately owned cabinets of the elite gradually expanded into museums. For those who regarded it as the Victorian version of Beanie Babies, Lubbock gets a bit judgmental but raises a valid point: "A collection of insects which is not studied is of as little real use as books which are not read ... Yet without collections there could be very little Entomology ... To describe species so that they may be recognized by other observers is an art much more difficult than would a priori be expected ... [and] if this had been always done, many mistakes and much confusion would have been avoided."

And boy were those early days ever riddled with confusion.

Critical observation lies at the core of bug science. Proper descriptions would aid future research, but those initial details were in dire need of editing. As mentioned in the History of Entomology, for example, first-century Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder believed that ticks lack an anus. The origin of bugs was also a headscratcher. Early Asian descriptions of fireflies claimed they developed from "decaying grass." According to Franciscan monk Bartholomeus Anglicus, butterflies were "small birds" whose poop hatched forth worms. The oldest (crude) drawings of insects from wood engravings are found in the 1491 edition of a Latin natural history encyclopedia called Ortus Sanitatis. One depiction of a snail looks like an eight-legged slug with a yarmulka on its back. Later, in 1602, we have the first book dedicated wholly to insects, De Animalibus Insectis. Finally, by the time of its printing, entomology and, more importantly, the systematics involved had become an established scientific study. Archaic yet stylish, the wooden engravings throughout the book are intricate enough for insect identification — more so than eight-legged snails. The details are a tad embellished. For instance, beehives have hallway designs as though they were a cross-section of a Swedish hotel, and underground ant colonies, clearly a diagnostic guess, have an M. C. Escher vibe.

As late as the seventeenth century, philosophers Francis Bacon and René Descartes believed that insects sprang from decay, with no reproductive behavior involved. But "spontaneous generation" was disproved by Francesco Redi in 1668 when he held bugs up to a microscope, discovering they came from female-laid eggs. (These prototype microscopes were nicknamed "flea-glasses.") That same century began to produce scientific illustrations of insects aided by microscope. Next, Marcello Malpighi further drove entomology as a separate field of study by documenting the metamorphosis stages of a Bombyx silk moth. Anatomy began taking precedence in describing these creatures. Jan Swammerdam detailed the molts of various insects and developed insect classifications in the mid-1600s that resemble those still used today. John Ray compiled all the taxonomic ideas being formulated in "systematical unity" in the 1710 work Historia Insectorum.

When I ask Lorenzo Forcella whom he'd consider as the father of entomology, he says, "I imagine the first entomologist was someone in the Amazon jungles." He walks me to a glass case displaying a long-horned harlequin beetle — a red-flamed shell that Amazon tribes replicated on their war shields. Then he shows me beautiful metallic beetles that tribes strung into necklaces. "We're talking tens of thousands of years! If you start digging into this, it's like peeling an onion."

The earliest depiction of an insect traces back to a drawing on a bison bone from 18,000 BCE. The illustration, by our early Cro-Magnon ancestors, shows a rhaphidophorid cave cricket. The first depiction of a human-insect interaction, however, dates closer toward the first agricultural revolution. A faded painting found in Spain's Cave of the Spider from somewhere between 8,000 to 15,000 years ago depicts a "honey hunter" interacting with a beehive, surrounded by a swarm. We can only hope this wasn't the explorer's obituary.

Around 3100 BCE, Egypt's founder of the first dynasty, King Menes, designated the oriental hornet as the symbol of Lower Egypt. It was "probably meant to symbolize the spreading of fear before the powerful monarch," according to 1973's History of Entomology. And ancient Egypt's Khepera — a beetle-faced god that was a symbol of creation and rebirth derived from the dung beetles that emerged from rolling balls of excrement — represents the round sun passing over the land. Egyptian soldiers commonly wore scarab rings, and after they died and were mummified, a carving of a scarab was often wrapped in place over their hearts.


Excerpted from "Bugged"
by .
Copyright © 2017 David MacNeal.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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.

Table of Contents

Table of Contents:

1. A Cabinet of Curiosity

2. Buried Cities

3. "Even Educated Fleas Do It"

4. The Art of Epidemics

5. Vámonos Pest!

6. You Just Squashed the Cure to Cancer

7. The Smallest Witness

8. RoboBugs, Microdrones and the Insect Engineers

9. Executives of Big Bug Biz

10. How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Eat the Bug

11. Tracing the Collapse

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