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Book Review: “Wicked Bugs” by Amy Stewart

Last night, there was a MONSTER of a moth fluttering around my room. It was big, I’m tellin’ you, like Mothra’s tinier but equally evil spawn. While screaming like a girl (which I am — so it’s okay, right?), I couldn’t help but to imagine all of the awful things it would do to me in my sleep if I lived and let live. These thoughts were all compounded by the fact that I’d just finished reading Amy Stewart’s book Wicked Bugs: The Louse that Conquered Napoleon’s Army and other Diabolical Insects.

This is a great book — but, JESUS, the terrifying images you’ll conjure upon seeing the smallest of centipedes after reading it! I warn you: if you’ve got a bug phobia (which she actually talks about in the section “Have No Fear” that, kind of, makes it worse), don’t read it! Don’t even flip through it! You’ll be greeted by illustrations of a multitude of cringe-worthy creepy-crawlies and facts about bugs that’ll make your brain spin in fits of terror and amazement if you do.


The first thing Stewart warns in the introduction to Wicked Bugs is: WE ARE OUTNUMBERED. You really have no idea how true this is, unless you’re a nerd or entomologist (although both are possible given the awesomeness of Nerdist readers), until you begin reading and realize just how much bugs have changed human history. She also makes it very clear that she’s not trying to romanticize bugs or extol their virtues, she’s focusing solely on making the reader cringe in his or her armchairs with darker facts.

One such fact, which probably wasn’t even meant to be a spine tingling one, is, “It is estimated that there are ten quintillion insects alive on the planet right now, which means that for each one of us, there are two hundred million of them.” WHA-WH-WHAT?! Quintillion?! THAT’S A THING?! It makes my skin crawl just pondering that number and, really, it helps me feel less guilty about accidentally committing mothicide while trying to shoo Mothra’s evil spawn out of a window. Just a little.

The book is broken up into a bunch of sections with headers like “Deadly” and “Painful”, followed by the name of the offending insect and sometimes a little helpful identifying factor, like where it exists or how big it is, and a (sometimes too thorough) description of the terror it inflicts. My favorite sub-section was “Zombies” under “Horrible.” Yuck. Coincidentally, my favorite bug is in there somewhere, it’s the Tongue-Eating Louse and it’s… disgusting. But don’t worry, it doesn’t eat YOUR tongue! It just gnaws down the tongue of an unsuspecting fish then latches onto the remaining tongue nub and ACTS AS ITS TONGUE while sucking the poor fish’s blood through the tongue hole. Tongue. Did I say tongue enough? But seriously, think about that for a second and make sure you check your fish in the market next time — maybe that’s not the tongue you thought it was? /shudder

Wicked Bugs is a great little gross-out guide, something I’ve been torturing my friends with at unsuspecting moments by whipping it out and reading the first description I land on. It’s also super-informative and fun, packed with interesting factoids. Amy Stewart makes no bones about the fact that she’s not a doctor or scientist either; She makes it very clear that she’s just an interested writer, and that translates to the fun, playful tone throughout the book. Pick it up if you’re interested; I’d say go with the good ol’ fashioned paper-type of book, as unhip as that apparently is, because I don’t think a Kindle or Nook or iPad or WHATEVER could really capture the fun encyclopedia/text book vibe it has going on. I could be wrong, but… I’m not.

This should be a coffee table book. Gross out your dinner parties! Or, you know, whatever hip people do these days. Stewart’s other work is Wicked Plants: The Weeds that Killed Lincoln’s Mother and Other Botanical Atrocities and if you loved that, you’ll appreciate Wicked Bugs just as much. They should be coffee table buddies, that’s all I’m saying.

Hope you enjoy it, nerdlings! Don’t forget, you can contact me on the twitters or by emails at booknerdist@gmail.com OR leave a comment here. Enjoy your day! You never know when a bug will crawl into your ear and bore into your brain. Just sayin’.

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8 comments

  • Thanks for the review. I had thought about reading the Wicked Plants book, but was unsure if it was worthwhile.
    I love Oliver Sacks and Mary Roach books and this seemed to be in a similar vein. I’ll have to check it out while I’m on vacation next week.

  • You are welcome for the review! But I want to warn you, while it’s in the same vein as Roach and Sacks, it’s definitely more text-booky and less story…y. It tends to read more like factoids arranged on a page than a narration. So. Definitely not the only book to pack on a vacation is what I’m apparently getting at, very slowly. It’s fun though! Enjoy!

  • Long before we were here, insects and plants made this world luscious and clean, fertile. With over-building, toxins, we are polluting all soil and air and water. One main job of most insects is to clean up the dirty yuck humans produce. The insects do not make the earth dirty; humans do. If we live clean, there are less insects and rats getting close to us. Think of the “footprint” of just one large human. It takes thousands of insects to equal one human. Their lives are short, but with inborn intension to maintain the earth as they are hard-wired by nature in balance. Humans are motivated by money, ego. Only when things get terrible do humans even try to be less destructive. We need bugs. I love bugs, with a new respect for their humble jobs as janitors, pollinators . I do not want them crawling over me if they sting or bite, but otherwise they do not scare or worry me. Their colors and bodies are beyond Hollywood graphics or any artist. I want to be buried in cardboard or no box so that the insects can eat and recycle me. Never think that a bug is a nuisance to be gotten rid of. If you kill an insect, stop and look at its small body and know that you had a choice and you chose wrongly. For sure, some day, one idiot will push the nuclear button. It has to happen in the human world. Cockroaches will survive. Bugs and microbes: little things rule the world.

  • oh, almost forgot! that big moth mentioned before by another person, may have been harmless, just big with big legs, wings. Decades back, I found one in my magical childhood days. It filled a Toni Home Permanent Wave Box. A bug specialist said it was rare and only appears in certain times, conditions. Its presence may have indicated climate changes, other signs. Native Americans know.

  • I *love* bugs! Fascinating, beneficial, harmful, beautiful looking, ugly, very minute, enormously big, inhabiting every continent except the Antarctic & maybe there now too with all the people who’ve established base camps – bugs are a part of our lives.

    I’m as interested in the ‘gross’, scary aspects of bugs as I am in their beneficial beautiful aspects so the review if this book grabbed my attention! I’m definitely going to check it out. If it’s well-written & truly accurate, it sounds like a great gift for some other bug loving friends – yes, other women ilike me! :^)