When it comes to the stuff of which nightmares are commonly made, it’s difficult to find a more commonly employed foundation material than the creatures contained in the Phylum Arthropoda, particularly those included in the Classes Insecta and Arachnida; in common parlance – insects and spiders. Different from us in so many ways – number of appendages and location of the skeleton respective to the vital organs being only two of the most obvious – arthropods present the average person with a near-perfect conundrum: living, autonomously mobile creatures whose perceptions, habits, and motivations are all but a complete mystery. From this lack of understanding has sprung fear and a willingness to accept even outlandish explanations to fill the void. For this reason, the popular understanding of the natural histories of those species living in closest proximity to us has long been heavily burdened by incorrect information. Fortunately, May R. Berenbaum’s The Earwig’s Tail: A Modern Bestiary of Multi-Legged Legends greatly lightens the load of entomological ignorance under which so many of us unknowingly labor.
In The Earwig’s Tail, Dr. Berenbaum, Professor and Head of the Department of Entomology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, presents the reader with a collection of short essays that are at once erudite and entertaining. Far from dry and pedantic refutations of the popular mythology surrounding insects, these essays are written in an easy-going, personal manner that will be thought collegially conversational by the dedicated entomologist or naturalist while also being welcomed as clear and intelligible to those not ordinarily disposed to taking up works of natural history and who in this case may have done so merely out of sheer curiosity (or fascination with Jay Hosler’s delightful illustrations that illuminate both the essays as well as the book’s cover). Indeed, while Professor Berenbaum is most certainly an accomplished entomologist whose writing conveys the easy confidence of one long established as an expert in her field, she as often as not makes her strongest points (backed up by solid science, to be sure) through the use of eminently human stories and experiences – some of which even betray her own misadventures with her topic subjects.
Take, for example, her transition from a discussion of a species of Solifugae (sun scorpions) commonly known as the Iraqi Camel Spider – the subject of many a hair-raising story told by soldiers serving in the Middle East – to the life cycle of the common Cat Flea; two species otherwise quite remote from one another but in this single essay bound together in their relationship to humans by a simple band of chemical-impregnated vinyl; the ubiquitous flea collar. To divulge the nature of this relationship here would be to spoil the story. Suffice it to note that in the reading of this single essay, more is likely to be learned on a variety of topics than in many other entire books. Other essays investigate the truth or lack thereof behind a number of other arthropod myths – from the inability of bees to fly to the vitality of headless cockroaches.
When it is considered that The Earwig’s Tail contains twenty-six such essays, all successful in their goal of debunking with both intelligence and good humor the accumulated erroneous information that has been heaped upon most of the common arthropod species or genera with which we are all familiar, it is easy to understand why this book is one that should be read by all regardless of previous scientific background or interest in natural history. Arthropods are, at all times, all around us (whether we know it or not) and in numbers that best our own by multiple orders of magnitude. It would indeed be a shame for anyone to continue to misunderstand such a vast quantity of life forms when so much corrective truth about them can so easily and enjoyably be discovered through the reading of a single book such as this.
Author: May R. Berenbaum
Publisher: Harvard University Press
Format: hardcover, 194 pages
In accordance with Federal Trade Commission 16 CFR Part 255, it is disclosed that the copy of the book read in order to produce this review was provided gratis to the reviewer by the publisher.