Tidewater Review - February 2012

Wicked Bugs

reviewed by

Anne Stinson

Wicked Bugs by Amy Stewart. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. 244 pp. $18.95.
Amy Stewart has a record of off-beat subjects that are profiled in her non-fiction books like this one, her most recent. She alerts the reader with a subtitle that aptly tells where the quirky title of this book will lead the curious. It reads, The Louse That Conquered Napoleon’s Army & Other Diabolical Insects.
The treatise on creepy-crawlies follows a brace of predecessors with related believe-it-or-not topics: Wicked Plants, with the provocative subtitle, The Weed that Killed Lincoln’s Mother & Other Botanical Atrocities. Before that was Flower Confidential, a.k.a. The Good, The Bad and The Beautiful. Clearly, the lady knows a rascal when she sees one.
Ms. Stewart’s classifications of insects is less than scientific, a bonus for the casual reader. For example, she labels specimens as “horrible,” “painful” or “deadly.” It’s as if she’s breathlessly confiding in the reader a tidbit of conversation that will evoke a dropped jaw and a gasp of disbelief.
Her wicked bugs are properly illustrated by etchings and drawings by Briony Morrow-Cribbs in a fashion that could only be called mug shots. The bugs are not only candidates for display on the post office wall, Stewart also provides a rap sheet for each culprit.
Her warning words about bed bugs, currently newsmakers, tells how awful those bugs are. They can survive a year without feeding but are too persistent to have to miss a meal very often.
Here’s the bedbug’s MO, or modus operandi. It “travels at night, lurking in the dim light,” Stewart writes, “feeling its way toward warmth and the tantalizing odor of carbon dioxide. It approaches its dinner – that’s you – with outstretched antennae, gripping the skin tightly with tiny claws ... it begins rocking back and forth, working needle-like feeding organs called stylets into the skin. It bites gently, piercing the skin just enough to get the blood flowing.”
By this time, the sytlets are probing under the skin to find a blood vessel to tap into. “If it is left alone to enjoy its meal, it will feed for about five minutes and then wander off. But if you were to swat at the bug in your sleep, it would probably move a short distance away and bite again, leading to a telltale series of three sequential puncture wounds. Dermatologists call these bites “‘breakfast, lunch, and dinner.’”
Isn’t that fascinating, boys and girls?
The black fly (there are seven hundred species of black flies in the world) mates, and then looks anxiously for a person or animal to bite and nurture her eggs along. The young nematodes (worms) are transferred to the blood-giver and hitch a ride in our bloodstreams.
The life cycle gets even more gory and maddening. The black fly must suck the little worms back into its body as it feeds or they won’t mature into more black flies. Not content to start life as eggs in a fly, then to nematodes in a human (or other animal), it has to get back into the fly. And here’s the really gross part: if no black fly returns to the human or animal for another meal, the worms grow into adults and settle under some part of the skin (it could be yours, dear reader) and live up to fifteen years “making and producing as many as a thousand offspring a day.”
Of course, we have all heard the warnings about the perils of spider bites, namely the black widow and the brown recluse. Alas, Stewart writes that the recluse’s reputation is muddied by the misinformed general public. It bites, true, but it is likely that the victim’s painful, rotting lesion is caused by something else.
The bite site resembles many other spider bites, but the only way to accurately identify a brown recluse “is to look deep into its eyes; they have six of them arranged in three pairs.” Stewart gives no advice for finding someone to hold the spider for the examination.
The author has a broad streak of drollery among her mini-bug delinquents. In fact, she emphasizes that she has taken liberties with the categories she cites, calling them all Bugs. She knows the differences between insects and spiders and scorpions and others, but they’re all bugs in common terms.
“I am not a scientist or a doctor,” she writes. “I am a writer who is fascinated by the natural world. Within each chapter I set out to tell a deliciously frightening story.... This is by no means a comprehensive field guide or a medical reference book. Please do not rely upon it to definitely identify a bug or diagnose an ailment. For that, there’s a list of recommended reading and resources at the end of the book.”
If the reader doesn’t break out in goose bumps at some of these “wicked” critters, it’s not the author’s fault. For example, did you know that members of Christopher Columbus’ crew deliberately cut off their toes? They were driven to desperation by infestations of Chigoe fleas that burrow under toenails and lay their eggs there.
Napoleon found himself helpless in his 1812 campaign against Russia. Body lice infected with typhus made his army drop like, well, like flies.
Stewart bolsters her litany of trouble with an incident in 1977 wherein a Mrs. Carole Hargis tried to murder her husband by slipping a tarantula’s venom sac into a blackberry pie. He survived, but most likely never ate pie again as long as he lived.
The champion, the uber-bug in Stewart’s catalog, is the mosquito, that ubiquitous pest with the multiple malaria deaths on its rap sheet. It has killed more people than all wars combined. It continues to kill one million people per year.
With a touch of black humor, Stewart informs us, “Beware: studies show that mosquitoes are more attracted to beer drinkers.” Apparently, non-beer drinkers are somewhat safer.
And so it goes, the list of perpetrators and their devilish deeds, the maggots and Spanish flies, the chiggers and biting midges, not a hero in the bunch. Amy Stewart has compiled a selection of downright mean and bloodthirsty no-count varmints with more legs than is good for them. Read about them and keep a distance.
Armed with Amy Stewart’s anecdotes, the reader will get the reputation of a wicked tongue, like Alice Roosevelt, who is reputed to be slyly mischievous with her invitation to parties. “If you don’t have anything good to say about anybody,” she would say, “come sit by me.”
That’s Stewart’s take on wicked bugs. It’s outrageous and entertaining.

Anne Stinson began her career in the 1950s as a free lance for the now defunct Baltimore News-American, then later for Chesapeake Publishing, the Baltimore Sun and Maryland Public Television’s panel show, Maryland Newsrap. Now in her ninth decade, she still writes a monthly book review for Tidewater Times.