These Are The Insects In Your Neighborhood
Book Review: Bees, Wasps, and Ants, by Eric Grissell
I picked this book up because I wanted to know more about insects. Eric Grissell, a research entomologist, is a good source for such knowledge.
This particular book focuses on the order Hymenoptera, which consists (as the title suggests) of bees, wasps, and ants. Also sawflies. (If you want to know why bees and wasps are in the same order with ants and not, say, butterflies, read the book.)
Grissell is a little miffed that so much attention goes to bees and butterflies, while wasps, ants and sawflies suffer neglect (or receive only negative attention). Despite their low profile, these other creatures are an enormous and mostly beneficial presence in the garden ecology (for example, there are 106,000 species of predatory or parasitic wasps, but only 19,000 species of bees).
Not that the author ignores the downsides. His book includes the “Justin O. Schmidt Pain Index”, which ranks the relative pain of various insect bites and stings, ranging from 1.0 (sweat bee: “Light, ephemeral, almost fruity”) to 10.0 (bullet ant: “Pure, intense, brilliant pain”).
Bees, Wasps and Ants starts with some Hymenopteran basics and discusses their importance to people and gardens. Grissell makes the case that all of these species provide essential environmental services – not just pollination, but pest control and recycling as well:
… these basic services help the garden function as a natural system and reduce problems such as outbreaks of unwanted pests. If our gardens were stable, with all creatures and plants in balance, we wouldn’t know what a pest was because its numbers would be so low as to be completely overlooked … The best way of improving a garden’s stability is to increase its biological diversity.
There is some discussion of attracting a diversity of Hymenoptera. Grissell notes that there are lots of plant lists compiled for attracting bees, but “few compilers seem to think it important to attract parasitic or predatory wasps”. Fortunately, what attracts bees will generally attract wasps as well. As for ants and sawflies, Grissell says they will just show up: “An invitation is not required.”
The rest of the book is taken up with describing the lives of the Hymenoptera, divided into sections on sawflies (“The Garden’s Cows”), parasitic wasps (“The Garden’s Police”), Bees (“The Garden’s Pollinators”), ants (“The Garden’s Recyclers”), and predatory wasps (“The Garden’s Wolves”).
Regarding this part of the book, all I can say is that the vast multitude of ways in which tiny creatures devour each other is truly awe-inspiring in a grisly sort of way. To give just one example, there is a wasp that specializes in hunting trap-door spiders:
The wasp burrows into the soil near a trap-door spider nest, provoking the spider to exit its nest, at which point the wasp overtakes it, paralyzes it, then drags it back to its own nest. The spider’s castle becomes its coffin as the wasp lays an egg [the wasp offspring will eat the spider], exits, then seals the trap-door shut.
In sum, this is a book which will awaken your inner seventh grader, making you want to cry “Cool!” or “Gross!” over and over again. (I would add that, based on my experience, your spouse may not appreciate your reading choice passages aloud from this book at bedtime.) It is written in an engaging style, complete with an appealingly nerdy sense of humor.
And as for sex, I will only say that the sex life of the honeybee queen would bring a blush to the cheek of the Marquis de Sade.
If this book has a downside, it is that after the author spends a great deal of time describing the behavior of a particular group of insects, and may then spend a little too much time describing all the exceptions to the general rule. This can become hard to follow.
Overall, though, this book provides an entertaining and useful introduction to a vast portion of the insect world, most of which is too often ignored.