Quick, name the world’s deadliest inhabitant.
If you said Homo sapiens, you’re wrong. It’s the lowly mosquito, which has killed more people than all of history’s wars combined. Right at this moment, about 500 million people are suffering from malaria worldwide. And malaria is only one of the diseases transmitted by mosquitoes; the insect is responsible for one in five of all insect-transmitted diseases.
This bit of natural history comes from a new book called “Wicked Bugs: The Louse That Conquered Napoleon’s Army and Other Diabolical Insects.” It is written by Amy Stewart, a California writer who has penned similar books about plants and earthworms.
“Wicked Bugs” is so crammed with horrid details and creepy but fascinating insect trivia that one comes away from the book absolutely convinced of a couple of things. One, Stewart must be among the world’s most interesting cocktail party guests. And, two, you never, ever, ever want to find yourself swatting at an Asian giant hornet, which is as large as a small bird and has a sting that one victim described as feeling like “a hot nail through my leg.”
Fortunately, you do not have to wait until you run into Stewart at a cocktail party to hear more of her bug stories. She is scheduled to speak at the Overture Center in Madison on Wednesday.
Stewart will be joined at the event by Briony Morrow-Cribbs, the artist who illustrated “Wicked Bugs.” Morrow-Cribbs, whose finely detailed works are also featured in the current “Beastly Prints” exhibition in the Overture Center’s Gallery I, is co-founder of Twin Vixen Press in Brattleboro, Vt. The 29-year-old native of Berkeley, Calif., has illustrated two of Stewart’s books and is now pursuing an MFA at UW-Madison.
If Stewart’s talk is anything like her book, the audience will come away with newfound appreciation for the insect kingdom and for the slow but majestic mechanisms of evolution, which resulted after centuries in the bombardier beetle. This beetle’s body features intricate chambers in which two chemicals are mixed with a catalyst that creates a caustic and disabling mixture that it blasts at its enemies from an artillery-like structure on its rear end.
In a curious aside, Stewart writes that Charles Darwin made the acquaintance of this beetle while collecting one day in the English countryside. He peeled the bark from a tree and saw three beetles, two of which he knew to be rare, and a third that he’d never seen. He grabbed two of the beetles, one in each hand, and, out of hands, popped a third beetle in his mouth.
“Alas!” Darwin wrote, “It ejected some intensely acrid fluid, which burnt my tongue so that I was forced to spit the beetle out.”
Other run-ins between people and insects described by Stewart are not as quaint. Napoleon’s army, for example, marched into Russia in 1812 half a million strong. The soldiers, facing a long winter, raided the farmhouses of peasants for food but also came away from their scrounging with body lice. Historians now believe that the lice, along with the typhus and other diseases carried by the insects, decimated Napoleon’s army and forced the retreat from Russia that would lead to the end of his career.
And pity the poor traveler to Mexico or Central America who brings home a bot fly larva — better known as a maggot — embedded in their skin along with their other souvenirs. The larva creates a wound that never quite heals and some victims have reported feeling and even hearing the larva move around beneath their skin. It is extremely difficult to remove and doctors often just recommend letting the larva retain its new residence until it crawls out on its own.
Other remarkable insects that make an appearance include the giant centipede, which can grow to a foot long and is so big it hangs in caves and brings down bats.
Though such exotic insects make for fun reading, it is often the very bugs flitting through our own part of the world that offer some of the most memorable material. A final note, then, about the mosquito: scientists, according to Stewart, have documented that in northern Canada during the height of mosquito season, people can get bitten as many as 280 to 300 times per minute. At such a rate, it would only take about 90 minutes to drain half the blood of a human body.
That could make for one tough canoe trip.