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Posted September. 30, 2006 04:19,   


If you see a bomber beetle as big as a fly, never touch it. If you do, you will get hurt. If it is touched, a liquid bomb of over 100 degrees blows off. How can it carry such a hot toxic liquid inside its body without it being a hazard to it? It can because of its amazing body structure. When Thomas Eisner, the author of “For Love of Insects” (2003), dissected a millipede shooting potassium cyanide, he found out that it has toxic materials divided in two pouches in its belly, whose mixture becomes potassium cyanide. It is an example of evolutionary mysteries developed for self-defense and survival.

A reader of the book cannot help but agree with the author that “even a star has a simple structure when compared to an insect.” Who could imagine there is such a big universe inside such a tiny entity?

Renowned sociobiologist Edward Wilson called the author, who is a chair and professor at Cornell University and a pioneer in the field of chemical ecology; a “pointillist of arthropods.” Eisner presents the behaviors of insects and their evolutions in details, using the latest microscopes and chemical analysis equipment like a pointillist’s brush.

Do not be daunted by unfamiliar scientific names and chemical terms. Complex experiments are presented with photos and drawings to help the reader’s understanding. When you overcome your initial sense of strangeness, the book will let you experience a “joy of discovery.”

There are more strategies than just chemical materials that insects develop for self-defense. Io moth and spicebush swallowtail butterfly caterpillars use fake eyes to scare enemies. Birds fly away when they see the fake eyes that look like a predatory animal’s on the moth’s back wings. The butterfly’s false eyes are shaped triangularly as if they can see in all directions.

The Florida tortoise beetle does not budge when ants attack. The secret lies in its 60,000 bristles and oil secreted onto its pads. When the author tested the adhesive force, a 13.5 mg beetle withstood the pulling force of a 2g weight, 148 times its own weight. In other words, this would be like a 70kg man withholding a 13-ton weight.

The author is as appealing as the world of insects. Eisner even put a bomber beetle into his mouth to see how its enemy feels when the bomb explodes. He describes his ambush to discover caterpillars, which were eating away insect-eating dew grasses, like a scene in a comedy movie. It is also pleasing to read his hilarious “digressions” such as the part in which he says that his motto for his amateur orchestra is: “We are not as bad as the sound we make.”

On an adventurous journey into the amazing world of insects following Eisner’s humorous style of writing, readers are made to think about the relationship between insects and humans. The argiope aurantia spider cuts off its own leg when it is bitten by the venomous teeth of the mantis, because it feels the venom. When Eisner inserted poison from bees, which is known to cause a pain, the spider cut off its leg. If it does not, it dies.

Materials that hurt humans can also hurt insects. Eisner says, “The spider’s physiological sensibility in cutting off its leg may be different from human sensibility, but not altogether.” There lies a reason why we should not treat insects carelessly.