It’s ironic — and somehow exquisitely fitting — that I was stricken with Lyme disease while reading Hugh Raffles’ new book “Insectopedia.” What better way to illustrate firsthand the symbiotic yet mysterious relationship between humans and insects that Raffles explores?
My experience could actually be another vignette among his 26 (one entry for each letter of the alphabet). Imagine a deer tick the size of the period at the end of this sentence with the power to bring me down. It’s the stuff of nightmares and legends.
Raffles, a professor of anthropology at the New School in Manhattan, scouts through history, popular culture, personal experience, science and art to weave together his observations, essays and musings about these familiar yet inscrutable beings that share the planet with us.
No, this isn’t summer beach reading, and it’s not meant to be. If you’re looking for a scientific primer on insect biology or bug behavior, this isn’t your book either. But if you long to traverse the freaky, baffling, beautiful world of beetles, crickets, wasps and butterflies from multiple angles and cultural perspectives, then consider this your launching pad. Reading “Insectopedia” is like embarking on a journey through uncharted terrain or even to an alien planet. You may think you know the bugs and pests that inhabit your world, the ones regularly crawling across your floors or munching in your garden, but Raffles illustrates how little you probably really comprehend.
He explores the influence insects have had on humans (from the bewitchery of butterflies to the devastation of locust swarms), as well as our often cruel forays into their world (e.g., the big business of Chinese cricket fighting).
The essays are surprising, enlightening, poetic and occasionally disturbing. There’s “Air,” a fascinating look at the high-altitude mass migrations of lady bugs, fungus gnats, and ballooning spiders (some of which soar as high as 15,000 feet above the earth), and “Chernobyl,” the story of Cornelia Hesse-Honegger, who for years has taken her artistic inspiration from leaf bugs deformed by fallout from the 1986 nuclear disaster. I was riveted by “Sex,” an unsettling peek at fetish filmmaker Jeff Valencia, maker of “Smush” and other porn-inspired “crush videos,” featuring women squishing earthworms and other insects (I won’t watch one myself, but apparently a few are available on YouTube). Raffles also lets us see through insect eyes, explores bisexuality among female grape borer weevils, and explains the elaborate dance language of bees.
“Insectopedia” may not turn you into an insect lover. But even hard-core spider-phobes and mosquito-slappers may gain new perspective.
Okay, about that deer tick: I’ll admit I still give a primal shudder every time I see one crawling on me or someone else. Blood-sucking is a creepy business — made even creepier when the blood-sucker transmits a potentially debilitating disease. But I do feel a bit more connected now. Not in the warm and cuddly sense — I’d certainly rest easier without these tiny illness-wielding vampires in the world. But I can better appreciate the ancient host/parasite–human/insect dance we find ourselves performing together.