Fireflies, Honey, 
and Silk

By Gilbert Waldbauer, 
Illustrations by James Nardi


University of California Press, 2009; 233 pages, $25.95

Hang up that flyswatter, cap that roach spray, and join Gilbert Waldbauer as he explores the lives of insects worthy of our appreciation. It’s a journey that takes the reader far beyond the domain of crickets on the hearth and butterflies in the garden. Our guide, an emeritus professor of entomology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is abuzz with obscure lore about a host of bugs that are as accommodating to humans as bedbugs, fleas, and mosquitoes are annoying.

There’s a chapter, for instance, on insects as jewelry. Did you know that fashion-conscious Victorian ladies used to tether live iridescent bugs to their dresses with delicate gold chains? In some quarters such beetlemania is still in vogue—Waldbauer spotted a large, leashed insect resembling an Egyptian scarab crawling across the chest of a fellow traveler on a flight from Mexico. Since agricultural inspectors are notorious bug spoilsports, as any entomologist returning from abroad with a suitcase full of specimens can testify, Waldbauer doubts that the animated jewelry made it through customs.
Although it is rather unusual to stick insects on our clothes, it is not at all strange to stick them in our mouths. In modern Japan, fried rice-field grasshoppers, called inago, are a popular snack. Thai diners relish mangda, giant water bugs that reputedly taste a bit like gorgonzola cheese when served fresh out of the steamer. And I can personally recommend escamoles, the pupae of ants fried with onions and garlic, which I recently enjoyed at a high-class restaurant in Mexico City. (Fittingly, if memory serves, my waiter may even have been wearing a silk cummerbund—with fibers produced by the larvae of another obliging insect, the silk moth, Bombyx mori.)

Europeans and Americans still find insects a bit hard to stomach, but few people don’t enjoy honey—which can be procured not only from bees, Waldbauer tells us, but also from so-called honeypot ants. Specialized worker ants take in plant nectar and honeydew (aphids’ sweet excreta), regurgitated by forager ants, until their own abdomens become grossly distended. Immobilized, hundreds of them hang like water balloons about to burst in the colony’s underground nest, serving as a food reserve. Before the advent of high fructose corn syrup, Native Americans in the Southwest used to dig the ants up to sweeten their diets, and some Australian aborigines still do.

Even insects we find repulsive can serve us well. Take maggots, the larval form of various species of flies. In 2004 physicians worldwide used more than 30,000 vials of them to assist in removing necrotic tissue from wounds. The maggots, it seems, do a much cleaner job than the surgeon’s knife can, a talent that is especially important as bacteria become increasingly resistant to antibiotics. So for a few people in dire straits, insects save lives. And for all of us, as Waldbauer makes clear, insects can make life easier, sweeter, and more enjoyable.

Recent Stories

Conspicuous armaments are good visual proxies for fighting ability.

Bats, reservoirs for such viruses as Ebola, are increasingly villainized and require special conservation.

After centuries of moving through the Irish countryside, a group known as Travellers has come to rest.

Algae, plants and humans: three groups of organisms that used chemistry to change the planet.