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“Buzz, Sting, Bite: Why We Need Insects”

  • By Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson
  • c. 2019, Simon & Schuster
  • $26, $35 Canada; 235 pages

You knew exactly where the mosquito was. It was right next to midnight, and he was next to your ear, where you couldn’t slap him dead. This summer, it seems that if it’s not a mosquito, it’s a housefly. If not a housefly, then a gnat, a wasp, or any other six-legged visitor. Grrrrr, maybe it’s a good time to slap your hands on “Buzz, Sting, Bite” by Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson.

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Smack, slap, smash, spray. That pretty much describes your summer so far, as warm-weather creepy-crawlies invade your life. Ugh, so ponder this: bugs were here before you were, and they vastly outnumber you. Researchers say there are “more than 200 million insects for every human being … on the planet today.”

So what, exactly, is an insect? Sverdrup-Thygeson says that a “good rule of thumb” is to count the legs, if you can. If you get to six and they’re attached to the creature’s midsection, it’s an insect. Arachnids, by the way, aren’t insects but that doesn’t stop entomologists (folks who study insects) from liking spiders.

There’s a lot to like, when it comes to insects.

Insects’ blood is yellow, for starters, which explains the gunk on your windshield. Bugs may have multiple eyes, which can be found anywhere, including on their private parts. Some insects have ears on their bodies or tongues on their feet; some have no mouth because they don’t live long enough to need one.

As if there aren’t enough bugs around, get this: insects are amazingly fecund and can reproduce quickly, laying thousands of eggs in a short time. With some exceptions, it’s a pretty safe bet that “every single ant, stinging wasp, and honeybee you’ve ever seen was female,” says Sverdrup-Thygeson; lady insects, in fact, mostly call the shots in the bug world, they can store sperm and pick their offspring’s paternity. and they’ve been known to kill any mate who meets them.

Smash, slap, spray, swear, but we still need bugs. Without them, we’d be buried beneath dead creatures and dung. We’d live in squalor. Many of the world’s industries would die and, with nothing to pollinate our plants, so would we…

If, when presented with a book like “Buzz, Sting, Bite,” your first inclination is to shiver or flinch, give yourself a minute. Bugs are our buddies, and you need to repeat that. As you’ll read in this fascinating book, it’s actually true.

But it’s not just bugs you’ll find here. Because the crawlies don’t live in a vacuum, author Anne Sverdrup-Thuygeson also includes other critters in her run through our ecosystem, showing how bugs benefit other living things and vice versa. This symbiosis is highly interesting, as are the peeks into insect anatomy, bugs’ beds and bed bugs, and the dark side of bugdom – all told in a way that’s butterfly-light but seriously fun to read.

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For sure, this is a book for armchair entomologists. It’s one for ecologists, too, and for curious folk who won’t flinch. Read “Buzz, Sting, Bite” and you’ll better appreciate what’s bugging you.

“One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission That Flew us to the Moon”

  • By Charles Fishman
  • c. 2019, Simon & Schuster
  • $29.99, $39.99 Canada; 465 pages

Star light, star bright. The first thing you see tonight is neither star nor planet. It’s technically a satellite, an orbiting astronomical sphere that seems to have a man’s face etched in its side. Once, though, it really did hold a man and in “One Giant Leap” by Charles Fishman, you’ll read about what went into the first moonwalk more than 50 years ago.

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President John F. Kennedy was adamant. Though he admitted to aides that he really didn’t care about space, he’d promised the American people that the U.S. would put a man on the moon before the decade was over. It rankled Kennedy that an American wasn’t first in space; that honor that went to Russian Yuri Gagarin in April 1961, and Kennedy wanted better. Some five weeks later, he made his pitch to the country, even though he knew it would be an uphill struggle: most Americans at that time didn’t see the need for space travel and didn’t want to commit the money.

Nonetheless, NASA, which was still relatively new then, leaped into action. Gagarin had circled the planet, nobody really knew how to take the next step. Though World War II had left the U.S. with exceptional technology and knowledge to take us into the future, much of what was needed for space travel had yet to be invented. The Russians seemed to have a better space program in place but Kennedy pressed on.

And then he was assassinated. Despite that JFK wasn’t interested in space itself, Lyndon Johnson certainly was and he “reaffirmed his determination to get the nation to the Moon by 1970.” When Richard Nixon was elected in 1968, he, too, was supportive of space travel. So were companies such as Playtex, General Motors, and IBM. So were hundreds of thousands of Americans who worked on behalf of the Apollo projects.

“Just five people watched Frank and Orville Wright make the first airplane flight,” says author Charles Fishman. But with five months to spare on Kennedy’s promise, “600 million people watched” on worldwide TV as two men plant a flag on the moon…

That’s the short story. There’s more to it inside “One Giant Leap,” but be warned: if you’re not very techy, parts of it may boggle your mind.

Really, though, there’s no other way that author Charles Fishman could have told this tale. Without a thorough accounting of the technology involved in winning the space race, the story is quite incomplete and it’s difficult to see the full picture of the work it took and the knowledge gained in the years between averral and Apollo. It helps that Fishman also puts this event into perspective by explaining what the world didn’t have and how strides in understanding and invention changed everything, as a whole.

But again, the tech: if it’s not your thing, work through it anyhow, for a story you need to know, as an American citizen. If you’re a STEM kind of person, though, you’ll find “One Giant Leap” to be five stars.

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The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. She has been reading since she was 3 years old and never goes anywhere without a book. Terri lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.

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