Extraordinary Insects by Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson review

This is not our planet: it’s the insects’.They arrived long before us (about 479 million years ago), and will still be wriggling and buzzing when we have poisoned or baked ourselves into extinction.

They’ve already survived five mass extinctions. They will eat the last humans, and move on to the next meal. There are far more of them than us – 200 million insects for every human – and over half of all known multicellular species are insects. 

The main secret of their durability is their astonishing fecundity. If two fruit flies mated, producing equal numbers of males and females, which in turn produced equal numbers of males and females (and so on), at the end of a year the twenty-fifth generation, if packed tightly together, would form a sphere whose diameter would be greater than the distance between the earth and the sun. 

That sort of genetic turnover produces a lot of new genetic material on which natural selection can get to work. The different London Underground lines have significantly genetically distinct populations of mosquitos, all descendants of those that colonised the Tube just 150 years ago.

The Bakerloo line mosquitos can still interbreed with the Piccadilly line mosquitos, but it wouldn’t take long to produce different species. Insects and Darwin together make a devastatingly innovative partnership.

We’re woefully slow and conservative beside them. They’re in charge. 

Yet we treat them with bored disdain – if we notice them at all. We kill them casually and recklessly, not noticing their wondrous complexity and downright beauty. They need a champion – and they have found a doughty one in Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson, a Professor at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences. 

She guides us round a huge cabinet of curiosities, and is the best kind of teacher. The stories she tells are so strange and absorbing that we don’t notice that we’re being systematically educated.

We learn that there are insects that live in fonts, computers, and in walrus nostrils; that there’s a species of swallowtail butterfly with eyes on its penis to allow accurate entry during mating; that some butterflies have ears in their mouths; that dragonflies can see up to 300 images per second, and interpret each one (if we see more than twenty per second, we perceive them as a continuously moving image); that beheaded fruit flies can live fairly normally for several days, dying only because, with no mouth, they can’t feed; that bees can count to four, and can distinguish between photographic images of different humans; that if carpet beetle larvae starve, they get younger – going from later to earlier larval stages; that dung beetles can use the Milky Way to orientate themselves.

Sometimes Sverdrup-Thygeson’s desire to be accessible results in irritating infantilism. She tells us about the male water boatman, for instance, which makes a deafening noise by using his abdomen as a string and his penis and a bow. All very interesting. But she goes on, sniggeringly: ‘…the fact that it fiddles with its own penis – well, you can’t take that away from it.’ Yes, yes. 

But this is easily forgiven. She has a serious purpose, and succeeds magnificently. I said that insects needed a champion. In a sense that was true. Insects are having a hard time. In Germany, the insect biomass has decreased by 75 per cent over the last thirty years. That’s a worry. But it’s far more worrying for us than for the insects. They’ll survive. But if we reduce their numbers much more, we’ll accelerate our own demise.

Many food crops won’t be pollinated; dung, corpses, urban filth, and dead vegetation won’t be recycled. Carbon capture will go down. And we’ll be missing out on the chance of eating insects, which are massively more efficient at turning fodder into protein than our conventional food animals. 

The Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson observed that ‘…we need invertebrates but they don’t need us…If invertebrates were to disappear, I doubt that the human species would live more than a few months.’ Quite right. 

Sverdrup-Thygeson champions the insects primarily to champion us

Extraordinary Insects by  Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson (Mudlark. £14.99)


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