Sunday, August 11, 2013

Amy Stewart's Wicked Bugs, Lyme disease, and me (or my lousy summer has really ticked me off)

I had Lyme disease this summer. I was very lucky to catch it early, so the treatment was effective and the issues resolved quickly. The symptoms that I had were different each day and included the standard flu-like presentation as well as some very violent thoughts that nearly provoked me to punch someone on the subway. In my defense, the person probably was talking too loudly on the phone or taking up several seats. (It is a testament to how sick I was that I was riding the subway to work rather than biking.) Needless to say, it was a strange trip. Once the antibiotics started to work and the misery started to fade, I became more interested in the bug, as well as the bacteria, that caused all the trouble in the first place. 

Thus, I picked up Wicked Bugs by Amy Stewart. Two aesthetic things that I really liked about the book: the design of the cover and the illustrations. This is Stewart's second book in the Wicked series and both books have the same pocket size and general cover design. The unusual size of the book makes me wonder the intention (if any) of the book design. The illustrations, such as the one of a deer tick on the right, are so detailed and lovely; it makes you forget some of the more ick-inducing details about the bugs in question.

The book covered a large variety of interesting bugs. My only complaint was that there was not more narrative. Instead, the book read like a compendium of interesting factoids about bugs. Surprisingly, this made it very easy to read in small bites. The louse mentioned in the subtitle of the book (The Louse That Conquered Napoleon's Army) was actually one of the less interesting stories in the book. It seems that Napoleon's army was decimated by typhus caused by body lice; in addition, Napoleon also had scabies for a good portion of his life.

According to Stewart, termites were an important factor is the destruction of New Orleans in the wake of hurricane Katrina (more information can be found here). Both the foundations of buildings in the city and the levees themselves were affected by the bugs, which compromise structural stability with their webs of tunnels through wood. The seams of the flood walls were sealed with bagasse, which is the pulp of the sugarcane leftover after the extraction of sugar. As you can imagine, bugs love that. Thus, termites may have played a role in the failure of the levees. In the aftermath of the storm, the mass exodus of residents meant that fewer people were keeping up with pest control, which led to increases in the populations of termites and further damage to the buildings, which were already ravaged by the storm. To my surprise, she doesn't mention the most interesting thing about termites: termites rely on a symbiotic bacteria in their gut to digest the cellulose. Those bacteria, in turn, rely on another symbiont to produce some of the digestive enzymes required for this process.

Like many of the insects covered in this book, deer ticks have a strange life cycle, which can involve three hosts. The larvae feed on rats, mice, or birds; as nymphs, they feed on small rodents or humans; and as adults that feed on deer. Sometimes, at the larval stage, ticks are infected by the bacteria that causes Lyme disease, a spirochete called Borrelia burgdorferi. Interestingly, Lyme disease was noted in medical writings dating as far back as 1550 BC, when it was called the "tick fever". In the northeast United States, cases have shown continual increases over the past decade. Climate change and loss of predators are thought to be the cause of these increases.

A chapter entitled "Zombies" focused on some other curious life cycles in insects. This section is certainly not for the squeamish. In fact, some of these stories make my skin crawl. Generally, these insects all seem to have a similar M.O.: they sting another insect and take control of it, typically to lays their eggs inside the poor victim. In the case of the emerald cockroach wasp, the wasps deliver a sting directly into its victim's (a cockroach) brain. At this point, the wasp can have total control of the cockroach. The cockroach will serve as a nest, a source of food, and eventually a cocoon for the wasp's offspring. The adult wasp will emerge from the cockroach, leaving only a shell of the former insect behind. These stories are all so unusual. How would something this devious evolve? What is inside that sting that can be such a powerful paralytic? These are some follow up questions I will have to research. One thing is certain, these stories make me hope that reincarnation is not real.

While Wicked Bugs wasn't the best book I read this year, I will be adding Wicked Plants to my reading list.

Enjoy this video from the author, Amy Stewart.

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