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New book entertainingly tells 'What Good Are Bugs'

Jim Barlow, Life Sciences Editor
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CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Insects are vital to every ecosystem and essential to our existence, Gilbert Waldbauer says, answering a common question posed by the title of his new book, "What Good Are Bugs?"

"The majority of green plants are pollinated by insects," says Waldbauer, professor emeritus of entomology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "Without the insects, most of these plants would not exist. Insects are involved in the population control of other insects and of vertebrates. They are very important in cleaning up the environment by their recycling of dung as well as dead animals and plants."

The book, published by the Harvard University Press, is subtitled "Insects in the Web of Life." Waldbauer’s entertaining approach draws from illuminating stories about many of the 900,000 known species of insects. The writing is mostly jargon free but filled with easy-to-understand scientific details.

"This book may be the first to catalog, on such an all-encompassing scale, the ecology of insects by their roles," Waldbauer said. "I wanted to tell what insects do, how they live and how they contribute to our lives and the world around us."

The book’s four sections cover insects "Helping Plants," "Helping Animals," "Limiting Population Growth" and "Cleaning Up." Examples drawn from his research and observations and that of his Illinois colleagues and other scientists fill the book.

Beetles, flies, moths, butterflies and bees, he notes, are among the 275,000 species of insects – most of them relying on vision and smell – that pollinate flowering plants. Some 300,000 species eat other insects. As an example, he vividly tells how North American dragonflies capture and chew their prey.

Waldbauer also tells how insects limit production and plant growth.

For example, the Asian long-horned beetle, a recent invader of many U.S. broad-leaf tree species, bores in the wood, feeds on the bark of twigs and mates on branches and trunks, weakening and often killing their hosts.

To explain how insects feed plants, he uses a boyhood experience. After finding a leaf with many shiny, glimmering spots full of stuck insects, his high-school biology teacher in Connecticut explained that it was one of 90 known species of sundews, a plant that traps and eats insects. Charles Darwin also had described sundews a century earlier.

Another more recent personal story involved a mysterious infestation in his home in Urbana, Ill., where caterpillars had been eating grain products in the pantry. It was discovered that seed-eating meal moths came home aboard "two necklaces of prettily dyed corn kernels" he had purchased for his wife on a trip to an Indian pueblo in New Mexico.

Insects, he writes, helped curtail unwanted rabbits in Australia. In 1950, 91 years after the intentional importation of this foreign species, authorities introduced a virus fatal to the rapidly reproducing rabbits. Mosquitoes and black flies quickly spread the virus, wiping out 90 percent of the destructive non-native species.

Waldbauer’s final section describes how insects clean up waste and recycle the dead, citing examples of bugs that find sustenance by devouring carcasses and dung.

"What Good Are Bugs" is about insects and how they fit into their ecology. "They transmit diseases and damage our crops, but the good services of the great multitude of insects, those that even the pushiest insecticide salesman would not call pests, immensely exceeds the harm done by the few destructive ones," he writes early on.

Waldbauer retired in 1995. He has since written "Millions of Monarchs," "Bunches of Beetles," "Insects Through the Seasons" and "The Birder’s Bug Book."

Meredith Waterstraat, a former Illinois graduate student in mathematics education and a former employee in the Illinois Natural History Survey’s Center for Economic Entomology, illustrated the book. She now teaches preschool in Heidelberg, Germany, where she also is a graduate student at the University of Maryland-Europe.