Sex on Six Legs: Lessons on Life, Love, and Language from the Insect World - Marlene Zuk (2011)
Life on Six Legs
Two-legged creatures we are supposed to love as we love ourselves. The four-legged, also, can come to seem pretty important. But six legs are too many from the human standpoint.
—JOSEPH W. KRUTCH
PEOPLE are more afraid of insects than they are of dying, at least if you believe a 1973 survey published in The Book of Lists. Only public speaking and heights exceeded the six-legged as sources of fear, although "financial problems" and "deep water" (presumably when one was immersed in it) tied with insects at number three. Dying came in at number six. I have no reason to expect that matters have changed much, and suspect that if spiders had been included with insects in the options, fear of the multilegged would have easily topped the chart. People have strong feelings about insects, and most of those feelings are negative.
And yet for centuries, some of the greatest minds in science have drawn inspiration from studying some of the smallest minds on earth. From Jean Henri Fabre to Charles Darwin to E. O. Wilson, naturalists have been fascinated by the lives of six-legged creatures that seem both frighteningly alien and uncannily familiar. Beetles and earwigs take care of their young, fireflies and crickets flash and chirp for mates, and ants construct elaborate societies, with internal politics that put the U.S. Congress to shame. And scientists—along with many backyard naturalists—keep on wanting to tell their stories.
It's not just that we publish scholarly journal articles about insects, or use them in our laboratories. Insects are special. Rats and mice are useful scientific tools, too, but although we personify them in fairy tales or cartoons, rodents are just not as compelling as bugs. Birds are beautiful, and we admire them and write poetry about their song and grace, but they don't get under our skin—literally or figuratively—the way that insects do. When it comes to insects, we write about Life on a Little-Known Planet, with Bugs in the System. We muse about Little Creatures Who Run the World, and we're only partly joking. Those of us who study insects are passionate about them in a way that can seem incomprehensible to outsiders. People get why Jane Goodall loves chimps; they are less sanguine about my fondness for earwigs.
Some of it, of course, is the sheer magnitude of almost everything about insects—they are more numerous than any other animal, making up over 80 percent of all species. Estimates of the number of kinds of insects vary wildly, because new ones are being discovered all the time, but there are at least a million, possibly as many as ten million, which means that you could have an "Insect of the Month" calendar and not need to re-use a species for well over eighty thousand years. Take that, pandas and kittens! At any one moment, say while you are reading this sentence, approximately ten quintillion (10,000,000,000,000,000,000) individual insects surround you in the world. All of that variety gives enormous scope for evolution to act upon. Think of all those species as possible ingredients for a menu in a vast natural restaurant. You can come up with a lot more living recipes with insects than with the paltry few thousand bird species out there. And then there is the sensationalism; nothing gets my students' attention like hearing about male honeybees' genitals exploding after sex, and everyone has shuddered over the female mantis eating her mate. Insects routinely do things that would put the most gruesome horror film to shame.
Of course, not everyone finds insects scary, The Book of Lists survey notwithstanding. Those books on insects find readers, the nature channels on TV often feature bugs, and in 2009 the London Zoo hosted a "Pestival," "celebrating insects in art, and the art of being an insect." It included art, lectures, discussions, and a celebration of all things entomological. It even featured a six-legged take on the recent death of pop star Michael Jackson: Japanese artist Noboru Tsubaki made a "Vegetable Wasp," described as "a kind of cocoon for Jackson to enable him to traverse between the world of the living and the dead." Whether this effort successfully put Jackson's spirit to rest or not, metamorphosis is a powerful, and not unwelcome, image for us noninsects to contemplate. When Isabella Rossellini made Green Porno, her series of short films on animal mating, she led off with insects: dragonfly, bee, mantis, housefly. They were compelling in a way that other animals are not.
So what is it that keeps us coming back to insects? Why do they inspire such strong emotions, and what can we learn about ourselves from watching their joint-legged lives? The newest discoveries in biology, about genomes and nerve cells and the evolutionary connections between them, are best revealed by insects. This book is my celebration of a world that is alien and familiar at the same time, an invitation to the latest news about insect lives. We are continuing to make extraordinary and important discoveries about insects, routinely even finding new species. I haven't seen Green Porno, but if the segment on dragonflies is up to date, it should include a shot of the male's jagged penis as it scoops out the sperm from a previous mate, replacing it with his own. Sperm competition, in which the sperm of multiple males battle inside a female's reproductive tract, was first discovered, and is best understood, in insects, and new aspects of it are being uncovered all the time.
Insects are even teaching us about mind control, and maybe even about consciousness itself. A tiny wasp called the emerald cockroach wasp can do what many renters cannot: direct the movements of a cockroach. The wasp does this not to rid a kitchen of scuttling invaders but to feed her brood. Many wasps provision their young by paralyzing other insects or spiders and carrying them back to the wasp's nest. The paralysis, as opposed to out and out killing of the prey, helps the prey stay fresh while the young wasp larva feasts on the flesh. Of course, paralyzed insects can't put themselves into the nest, so the wasp usually has to do all the heavy lifting, staggering under the weight of her groceries as she flies back to her young. Except, that is, in the case of the jewel wasp, so named for the glittery emerald sheen of her exoskeleton. The female wasp doesn't send the roach into an immobile stupor; instead, she makes it into a zombie via a judicious sting inside the roach's head, so that its nervous system, and legs, still function well enough to allow it to walk on its own. Then, as science writer Carl Zimmer describes, "The wasp takes hold of one of the roach's antennae and leads it, like a dog on a leash, to its doom."
For years scientists were mystified about the precision of this sinister manipulation of the nervous system. How could a single injection of venom manage to produce what neuroscientists Ram Gal and Frederic Libersat, from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel and the Université de la Méditerranée in France, called "a living yet docile" victim? Finally, in 2010, through a series of meticulous manipulations of the cockroach nervous system, including a kind of wasp-mimicking injection at various sites along the collections of nerve cells in the head, the researchers demonstrated that the drive to walk in response to most stimuli is seated in a tiny cluster of cells called the subesophageal ganglia. By poisoning just this minuscule part of the nervous system, the wasp is able, in Gal and Libersat's words, "to 'hijack the cockroach's free will.'" Zimmer refers to the discovery as finding "the seat of the cockroach soul." I am not so sure I buy the idea that roaches have souls to be found, nor that free will is residing in all those cockroaches lucky enough to miss an encounter with a jewel wasp, but then I am not sure about either of those things in humans, either. But the finding illustrates one of the most enthralling aspects of insects: they make difficult-to-grasp concepts, for example, souls and free will, satisfyingly literal. If we can get to a roach's motivation to walk by throwing a monkey wrench into a couple of cells, can the ability to find motivations for human behaviors be far behind?
Maybe you are convinced that insects are important simply because they invade our kitchens and crops, but you don't think they have any inherent magic. If you are one of those that think insects are important but not breathtaking, pests without inspiring passion, I want to change your mind. It's not just that insects are useful, even essential, given their role in pollination—providing what are now trendily called ecosystem services —or the use of their genetic information to cure malaria. Those practical reasons can make you need something, but not love it; no one denies our reliance on, say, soap, or drywall, but who wants to hear about their intricacies? Insects, on the other hand, can help us see another way of life, like a gloriously overblown version of cultural exchange. Travel is said to be broadening because it makes us realize that our way of doing things is not the only one, that people in other cultures live differently and get by just fine. Insects do that, too, only better. They too make us see that our way of life is not the only one—and I don't mean that we could be eating dung instead of cheeseburgers. I mean that it is possible to be unselfish without a moral code, sophisticated without an education, and beautiful wearing a skeleton on the outside. Insects can shake you in ways you never expected, and even more new discoveries about their lives have been made possible just in the last few years by the tools of genomics. So what do insects have that people haven't noticed?
Insects Are Equal Opportunity
INSECTS are the great equalizers. There is not a corner of the globe where people—rich, poor, old, or young—have not had some encounter with insects, even if only to swat a mosquito or crush a cockroach. Because of that ubiquity, insects are the easiest portal to the animal kingdom, an inadvertent reminder that other creatures live here besides us, whether we want them to or not. We are all in the same buzzing, crawling boat.
But this is not to bemoan that we are all dragged down by the assault of six-legged life on our crops or our persons, a kind of vermin-ridden misery loves company. Insects also provide a much more uplifting egalitarianism. If you want to learn about the natural world but are too young or too poor or otherwise lack an opportunity to study the stars or put droplets of pond scum under a microscope, bugs are always there for you. I grew up in the middle of Los Angeles in a modest neighborhood without creeks or woods or much in the way of encouragement to do a project for the science fair. But early on I discovered that if I lifted the hexagonal concrete pavers in the yard, ants would rush to and fro carrying their plump white pupae, and that the tiny spiky monsters on the rosebush would metamorphose into ladybugs. I reared the fritillary butterflies that lived on a passionflower vine in our yard, year after year, never tiring of watching as the eggs hatched into threadlike caterpillars that grew and grew inside my jars, eventually hanging upside down from a stick and becoming a gaudy spangled adult. No special equipment necessary, no need to venture anywhere my mother would disapprove of or that cost any money at all. And the results were just as compelling, maybe more so, than if I'd had a telescope or a dissecting kit or a way to watch the social lives of wolves.
This equal-opportunity entomology has been going on for centuries. Maria Sibylla Merian was a German-born painter whose work is rediscovered and shown every few decades; she was recently featured at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Merian documented, many years before the naturalists of the time, the life cycles of butterflies, moths, and other insects. Her work is exquisite from an aesthetic perspective, but what interests me more is that as a woman in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, she was able to make scientific contributions that would have been impossible in virtually any other field, simply by virtue of using the specimens from her own garden. She eventually traveled to Surinam to study the brilliantly colored insects of the steamy jungle, but that was after her interests had been firmly set. Although she, like many other women scientists and naturalists, faced opposition for her unfeminine activities, the accessibility of her subjects meant that she could keep doing the work she loved.
Interestingly, professional entomology has become one of the more male-dominated fields of biology, perhaps because of its connections with crop pest management and agribusiness, both of which tend to attract men. Regardless, it still appeals to children, both boys and girls, as my experience testifies. And even now it is not impossible to make important discoveries without a lot of technological gizmos. A group of scientists working in Brazil recently discovered that caterpillars parasitized by a wasp continue to make an unwitting sacrifice even after the wasp larvae have emerged from their host to pupate on a nearby stem. The ravaged caterpillar stands guard over the developing wasps and defends them against intruders with vigorous swings of its body, a most uncaterpillar-like behavior. Apparently the wasps exert a kind of mind control over their host that persists even after they leave it, doomed to die before it will ever become a moth.
This gruesome story has many arresting elements; most of the news coverage used words such as voodoo and zombie, as with the jewel wasp mentioned above. What I like most about it is that the scientists who discovered it were just watching the goings-on in a guava plantation, an illustration of what you can find if you are just paying attention. High tech has its place, of course, and I would hardly champion a return to simpler science or the eschewing of DNA sequencers. But I take great pleasure in the unifying ability of studying bugs. It's not just that insects level the playing field: they even supply the toys. The chapters that follow will let you play with them, will let you in on some remarkable new truths, in a way that would be impossible with most other fields of science.
Insects Are a Mirror
ALONG with all of their alien behavior, insects seem to do much of what people do: they meet, mate, fight, and part, and they do so with what looks like love or animosity. Dung beetles take care of their helpless squirming young, doing almost everything human mothers do, short of giving their baby a bottle—or parking it in front of the television. Ants keep aphid "cattle," moving their herd from place to place and milking the honeydew the aphids produce. Bees convey the location of food using symbols. Unlike any other nonhuman animal, some insects live in sophisticated hierarchical societies, with specialized tasks assigned to different individuals and an ability to make collective decisions that favor the common good. They mirror most of our familiar behaviors.
And yet they do all those things in stunningly different ways from humans, getting to what look like the same destinations without any of the same highway systems or modes of transport. That reflection we recognize is eerily superficial, because what drives the behaviors is not what drives our own. Underneath the maternal care, the language, the system of social favors given and returned is a handful of nerve cells casually strung together in a few small clusters along the body wall. No cerebrum, no right and left hemispheres, not even that so-called reptilian brain part, the cerebellum. They don't have a pituitary gland, or a system of hormones like ours. And yet a sphecid wasp with a body smaller than a kidney bean can dig a burrow in the sand, go off to find a caterpillar just the right size to feed her young, and bring it back to the burrow, remembering where it was and how many other caterpillars she had already brought there. Most of us couldn't find a single caterpillar if we were commanded to do so, much less bring it back to a site the equivalent of a county away. A whole ant colony, with all the drama of the queen suppressing the reproduction of her daughters, can live inside an acorn. A female insect can survey an array of frantically displaying males, select one on the basis of a tiny difference in song, color, or smell, and then store his sperm for weeks or even years before selectively using a particular mate's DNA to fertilize some—and only some—of her eggs.
How is that possible? How can you get what looks like human reasoning, even human love, when you lack not only a human brain but even the chemicals in the blood that drive human emotions? It is easy to endow a fellow warm-blooded creature, for example, a dog or a bird, with motivations and feelings like our own, harder to do so when the entire nervous system of a fruit fly producing a wing-fluttering courtship song of come-hither would fit on a sesame seed.
Insects bring home the uneasy truth that you don't need a big brain to do big things, and that in turn makes us question how the mind and, dare to say it, the spirit, are related to the brain. It even makes us question what it means to be human. What does it mean to have complex behavior? Does it mean you are smart? Is the complexity of a honeybee nest with its exquisitely economical hexagons equal to that of a Park Avenue brownstone? We all have our prejudices, and even scientists can be terribly vertebrate centric about understanding behavior. A huge fuss is made about the behavioral flexibility it takes for a New Caledonian crow to construct a tool from a leaf to poke a grub out of a branch, or a chimp to use a stick to get termites from a hole in the ground. It's that flexibility, we say, that's important—humans and a few other anointed species can change what they do to suit changing circumstances. We aren't little automatons; we are unique individuals. Behavioral flexibility is taken as the hallmark of intelligence and hence the key to human evolution. It is often linked to brain size, and that in turn is said to be important for allowing our complex behavior.
Natural selection can produce what looks uncannily like intelligent thought or emotion but is no more than the relentless culling of minute variations in genetic makeup, generation after generation, for millions of years. Not only that, but insects too have small personalities, with some showing boldness in new situations and some hanging back with what looks an awful lot like shyness. It's turning out that we haven't cornered the market on individuality, either.
Insects make us question virtually every assumption we have about what makes humans human. They lay bare the workings of evolution.
Insects Are a Window
INSTEAD of a mirror, sometimes insects hold up a window, so that we can see through it and imagine life with different ground rules. Insects wear their skeletons on the outside, and they insouciantly transform from egg to grub to gleaming adult in the space of days. Insects use their antennae to smell and hear in ways we cannot even begin to comprehend, with male moths detecting the odor of a receptive female from a single molecule released miles away. Some bees and butterflies can see in the ultraviolet range, giving them an array of colors we don't have names for. Although, as I discuss in a later chapter, insects can learn more than we have previously given them credit for, they produce their complicated behaviors by and large de novo, without benefit of experience or schooling.
All of that difference means that we can learn from insects without having to claim kinship so insistently, the way we do with the feathered and furred. As the famous evolutionist Richard Dawkins said in an article about the intelligent design controversy, "Many people cannot bear to think that they are cousins not just of chimpanzees and monkeys, but of tapeworms, spiders, and bacteria." This unwillingness is particularly true for insects; it may seem improbable to imagine oneself related to microbes, but it does not offend. But to me that lack of identification with insects is precisely why we can look to them to gain insight into our own lives—we simply cannot anthropomorphize them into cute caricatures of humans.
Our inability to identify with insects can thus help keep us—and them—out of trouble, because we do not insist on making them into what they are not. Primates in particular, and especially chimpanzees, seem so much like little people that we almost cannot believe they are animals. When a pet chimp named Travis attacked a woman in Stamford, Connecticut, in 2009, people were shocked, mouthing, as Charles Siebert in the New York Timespointed out, many of the same platitudes as when the proverbially quiet neighbor goes on a murderous rampage. "He seemed so pleasant and mild-mannered." Siebert goes on to note, "There is something about chimpanzees—their tantalizing closeness to us in both appearance and genetic detail—that has always driven human beings to behavioral extremes, actions that reflect a deep discomfort with our own animality, and invariably turn out bad for both us and them."
We don't have the same problems with insects. They are so hard to anthropomorphize, and yet they still have that superficial similarity to us. They challenge us to find an explanation for a behavior without resorting to human-specific quirks of physiology or genetics. Insects allow us to study phenomena—the effect of personality type on health, say—without the confounding factor of the mechanism behind them. In other words, if being hard-driving makes people and rats more likely to die early, you don't know if it's because of the stress itself or because of a hormone such as cortisol that happens to be linked to stress in both cases. But if being hard-driving kills off both people and ants, there must be something in the stress itself that is responsible, because ants don't have the same hormones, or indeed virtually any of the same mechanisms for getting from the environment to the behavior, that people do.
I have rarely if ever found insects frightening, at least in the abstract. But I certainly find them unsettling, reminders of another world. I am in good company; Charles Darwin, in his recounting of his observations of tropical insects, found that the possibility of finding so many different species "is sufficient to disturb the composure of an entomologist's mind, to look forward to the future dimensions of a complete catalogue." Some of that is the lack of expression, of what the psychologists call affect, the outward manifestation of one's inner being. The great entomologist Vincent Dethier, who wrote eloquently about the smallest details of fly behavior, felt that the lack of expression in insects stood in the way of our empathy with them: "One empathizes less, if at all," he said, "with a beetle or a fly which has a comparatively immobile head than with a praying mantis that turns her head and stares at one." That lack of empathy is not a hindrance, at least in my mind, but a help. Dethier also said, "It may be, as Alexander Pope averred, that the proper study of mankind is man; nevertheless, to know in which respects a fly is not a man cannot help but reveal something about ourselves." The newest discoveries about personalities in insects are revealing that connection.
Insects are starting to answer the question of "What does it take?"—to have a personality, to learn, to teach others, to change the world around them—with the humbling and perplexing answer, "Not much." Humbling because they do these things with brains the size of a pinhead, and perplexing because if that's all it takes, what does that mean for us, with our gigantic forebrains and exhaustingly long periods of childhood dependency?
Insects Are Essential
If all mankind were to disappear, the world would regenerate back to the rich state of equilibrium that existed ten thousand years ago. If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos.
—E. O. WILSON
WE ALSO keep coming back to insects because they are, however we may feel about them, extraordinarily important to the earth's functioning as well as our own. Insects help aerate the soil by burrowing through it, and nourish it by leaving their droppings. They eat dead plants and animals that otherwise would clutter up the planet, and release the nutrients back to the soil. They control populations of other invertebrates and vertebrates alike, by eating them or their food or by making them sick. In turn, insects provide food for other organisms. Perhaps most critical, insects are key pollinators of commercial and wild plants alike. All of these activities are performed to some extent by animals other than insects, of course, but the sheer magnitude of insect numbers means that they could not be eliminated without leaving a hole so large that, as Wilson says, the rest of the world's organisms would be unable to continue their lives.
To make the worth of these ecological services, as they are called by scientists, more concrete, in 2006 John Losey from Cornell University and Mace Vaughan of the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation calculated the economic value of four crucial tasks performed by insects: pollination, recreation, dung burial, and pest control of animals that eat crops, including other insects. They chose these categories because of the availability of data, not because of their perceived "importance," and acknowledge that the amount is almost certainly a conservative estimate. The total bill? Over $57 billion in the United States alone, and that just includes so-called wild insects, not domesticated honeybees or silkworms or other species that are reared commercially by people.
The recreational aspect of insects is not, as you might initially think, due to people wandering around the countryside collecting butterflies to be pinned under glass. Instead, Losey and Vaughan examined the importance of insects to hunting, fishing, and wildlife observation, including bird-watching. Fish need to eat insects, and we use insects to catch them. Game birds such as grouse and pheasants rely on insects as food, as do waterfowl such as geese and ducks. And without grubs, flies, and beetles, all those lovely harbingers of spring—the warblers and flycatchers, woodpeckers, and swifts—would perish.
Dung removal is probably not a service to which people give much thought, but our own sewage issues aside, everyone produces waste, as the children's book notes rather more colloquially, and it has to go somewhere. If it weren't for insects, that waste would just linger on the surface of the soil or in the water, tying up nitrogen that could be enriching the soil, and providing a breeding ground for disease-causing organisms. Cattle also tend to shun grass that has been sullied by dung. By burying manure underground, dung beetles come to the rescue in many parts of the world, including the United States. They were introduced into Australia, where they do not occur naturally, to help process the massive quantities of dung produced by the cattle brought to that continent in the late eighteenth century. A friend of mine in Perth, Western Australia, worked with the Dung Beetle Crusade, a campaign sponsored by the government to help deal with the problem, and would take buckets of the beetles around the country.
Pollination deserves a special mention, both because of its importance and because the recent decline in honeybee colonies makes the topic particularly timely. More than 218,000 of the world's 250,000 flowering plants, including 80 percent of the world's species of food plants, rely on pollinators, mainly insects, for reproduction. Losey and Vaughan cite a 1976 publication estimating that 15 to 30 percent of our diet in the United States relies on food sources requiring animal pollinators. In a typical fast-food meal of a hamburger, fries, and a milkshake, most of the components required an insect somewhere along the way; although the wheat in the bun is wind-pollinated, the other plants, from the cucumber for the pickle to the feed eaten by the cow, are insect-pollinated. Nicola Gallai from the University of Montpellier in France and her colleagues estimated the world economic value of pollination to be $153 billion, pointing out that this is nearly 10 percent of the value of agricultural production used for human food in 2005. Even more graphically, researchers with the Forgotten Pollinators Campaign in Arizona calculated that one in every three bites of food is made possible by a pollinator. We tend to think primarily about honeybees when it comes to pollination, but hundreds of bee and other insect species help pollinate crops, including the blue orchard bee, the southeastern blueberry bee, and the squash bee. Bees are about much more than honey.
Insects Are Hidden
DESPITE all of the aforementioned virtues, it is undeniable that insects will never fall into the category of what biologists call "charismatic megafauna," the large showy animals such as elephants and eagles that attract the attention of the public and help make the case for conservationists. When whales are endangered, people want to pass legislation and protest in storm-tossed boats. When a butterfly is endangered, people chuckle, and that's if they are feeling sympathetic. In the part of southern California where I live, endangered species are political footballs. Multimillion dollar housing developments can hinge on endangered species occurring on the land where they are planned, and when the Delhi Sands flower-loving fly was put on the list, people were not exactly imagining their wingbeats pulsing over the dunes as stirring music played, the way they would if the species in question were an eagle. It wasn't just that the flies were, well, flies, and hence lumped with vermin, it was that they were invisible to virtually everyone. Why should we save something we'd never even seen?
Yet this seemingly innocuous, easily overlooked quality of insects, belying the extraordinary activity going on under our noses, is exactly what draws those of us in the know to them. In 1991, the Society for the Study of Evolution held its annual meeting in Hilo, on the Big Island of Hawaii. I wanted to go for the usual reasons one goes to scientific get-togethers: people would give talks on their most recent work, I could meet up with old friends and colleagues, and I could recruit new graduate students or collaborators. Besides, I had never been to Hawaii, and I was also excited about seeing the sights, from volcanoes to birds that lived nowhere else.
I therefore decided to go a bit early to the Big Island, and entertain myself for a week or so before the meeting started. I have been studying crickets and their parasites since graduate school, and so it seemed obvious, at least at the time, that the entertainment would involve doing something with crickets in Hawaii. A colleague who had done postdoctoral work at the University of Hawaii in Hilo mentioned that an introduced cricket species, Teleogryllus oceanicus, was abundant on the lawns and vacant lots around the campus, and so I decided to collect some of them and dissect them to look for parasites. I now wonder just why this seemed to be the inevitable, or at least the best, option as a recreational activity, but regardless, the week before the conference found me and my long-suffering husband standing on the lawn near the university library, wearing headlamps and watching for crickets in the dark.
Crickets are usually rather secretive animals, with the males staying hidden in burrows or leaf litter while they produce their melodic songs. But here, we kept seeing males out walking around on the surface of the grass, brazen as could be, and what was more, they weren't calling. Since calling is the only way male crickets can attract a mate, and since attracting a mate is a cricket's—any insect's—raison d'être, I was puzzled. What were the silent males doing?
In what has turned out to be the only time in my life that I have impressed my husband, also a biologist, with my scientific acumen, I said to him, "The only place I can remember hearing about crickets doing this is in Texas, where they get these acoustically orienting parasitic flies. But I've never heard of any crickets here getting them. I suppose I should look."
As you can probably guess, the next day I was dissecting the previous night's catch of crickets when a white maggot popped out of the body cavity of one of them, like a ghoulish jack-in-the-box. A little more work established that indeed, the crickets in Hilo—and, as it turned out, on Kauai and Oahu as well—didn't only attract the attention of amorous females when they called. They also risked being discovered by flies that use the chirps in a much more sinister way. Once a female fly locates a calling cricket, she deposits tiny larvae on him. A larva, usually one but sometimes two or even three, burrows inside the cricket's body and starts, ever so slowly, to eat his flesh while he is still alive. First it feeds on his body fat, but eventually, as the fly maggot grows until it occupies the entire body, from head to abdomen, it consumes the male's other organs, so that he is a shell that looks like a cricket but is pulsing inside with fly.
I am interested in this grisly process for many reasons, but mainly because it exquisitely illustrates an evolutionary conflict for the males: it is terribly dangerous to call, because males risk attracting the attention of the flies, but calling is the only way to attract a mate. That week in Hilo got me started on a research program I have continued ever since, trying to discover how evolution has worked out the crickets' dilemma. We work, of course, at night, when most of the locals as well as the tourists are elsewhere, in places that tourists would never think to go, and watch as the drama unfolds in the grass. I have learned a great deal from the crickets, and the whole time I feel as if I am in possession of an enormous secret that no one else in the islands, as they drink mai tais and lie on the beach, has any idea exists.
I am fully aware that from most people's perspectives, that's exactly as it should be, and that knowing about pale sticky maggots bursting Alien-like out of the living bodies of other organisms wouldn't enhance their Hawaiian experience one bit. But for some of us, that sense of being in on a hidden world is exactly why we remain fascinated by insects. Several years into the project, I brought my graduate student Robin to Hawaii to study the crickets, and on her first trip we set out a trap to catch some of the flies, a relatively easy matter because of their single-minded attentiveness to the sound of a cricket. All we had to do was play cricket song through a speaker with a tile placed in front of it; the tile was covered with a sticky substance so the flies couldn't get away once they had been attracted to the song.
We turned on the recording and sat on a bench several yards away. After about twenty minutes I told Robin to go check the tile. She came sprinting back, visibly excited. More than a dozen flies speckled the tile, their wings buzzing in frustration. But Robin wasn't just satisfied at a successful experiment; she was also taken aback. The flies are not insubstantial, being about the size of a small housefly. But she'd never seen one before. Where, she wanted to know, had they been all this time?
It's simple, I responded. You've never seen them because you don't have anything that they want. But now you know they are there, and what they are doing. And things will never be the same.
It is exactly this feeling of a mysterious intricate drama being played out under our noses while most people remain unaware of its existence that makes us keep wanting to understand the lives of insects. Their stories seem unbelievable, with each life cycle, each mating ritual, more extraordinary than the last, and yet they are true. The rest of this book goes to places most people never see, as scientists uncover their secrets with techniques as new as proteomics and as old as a nose buried in the grass watching the bugs go by. We are changing our minds about what it takes to learn, about the nature of individuality, and about what a gene really does, all because of insects and the way they both reveal and reflect our own lives.
Authors write fiction about parallel universes, they ponder the possibility of supernatural beings, maybe even the spirits of the departed, traveling in our midst. The ability to glimpse another world is always touted as an allure for those who dabble in the paranormal. But who needs to be able to see dead people when you can see live insects?