Mar 2014: For Love of Insects

March 2014 Library Profile:
Blakc line engraving of Narcissus, with one beetleNarcissus with Beetle by Daniel Rabel

For Love of Insects


"What makes things baffling is their degree of complexity, not their sheer size... a star is simpler than an insect."

- Martin Rees


"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."

- Edward O. Wilson



For Love of Insects, by Thomas Eisner (forward by Edward O. Wilson), is only one of the many volumes the library has on insects. Insects are an integral part of any ecosystem and a knowledge of their relationship with trees and plants, as pollinators, food sources, pests, etc, can provide an understanding of not just the ecosystem as a whole, but how each tree and insects fits into that system. The library's insect-related collections include several shelves in our circulating collection, rare books, art works, and even the insects themselves; we are lucky to have over 600 beautifully preserved butterfly and moth specimens originally collected by naturalist Sherman Denton around the turn of the 20th century. 

Eisner describes his 2003 work in the prologue as "a narrative about insects, a retrospective of a lifetime of exploration of a group of animals that truly can be said to have conquered the planet." He wrote the work with the aim of inspiring a preservationist spirit towards insects, and the tales of his travels, discoveries, and experiments are imbued with a strong spirit of adventure and love for these creatures. With chapter titles like "Masters of Deception", "Vinagroons and Other Wizards", and "Ambulatory Spray Guns", Eisner illustrates the lives and seemingly super-insect abilities to defend themselves and thrive.


Excerpt from For Love of Insects

"Most animals feed on plants rather than other animals, so it should come as no surprise that plants are, on the whole, well protected against animal assault. Plants have spines, thorns, and countless chemical defenses, clear evidence that their evolution has been a long struggle against herbivory.... Animals... sometimes engage in complex behaviors by which they manage to circumvent the defenses of the plants they eat. One example involves insects that feed on laticiferous plants, plants that produce latex for defense, a viscous, milky juice that they emit when injured... By cutting through the midvein [of a leaf] and causing a localized emission of latex, you can block the plant's ability to convey latex to parts of the leaf beyond the cut, with the result that such parts are rendered defenseless... In the northeastern United States, if you come upon a stand of the milkweed Asclepias syriaca in midsummer, chances are you will find some of the leaves have been eaten away at the tip, so that they appear terminally notched. Examination of the midvein of such leaves shows that they have been transected, sometimes more than once, just proximal to the notch. It was inevitable that insects would evolve ways of exploiting this weakness... The interaction of insects and their food plants is extraordinarily complex and provides countless examples of evolutionary adjustment of insect to plant, and of plant to insect - of insect-plant coevolution. Insect herbivory forced the evolution of plant defenses, and plant defenses in turn forced the evolution of insectan countermeasures. The present of laticiferous systems in plants and the capacity of insects to circumvent these systems are both the result of coevolutionary interaction. The further occurrence of looping laticiferous networks, and of trenching behavior for dealing with these, provides evidence that coevolution in some of these cases has progressed beyond the initial reciprocal adjustments."

Thomas Eisner, For Love of Insects, 281-288


Library Resources

Following is a small sample of our collections on the subject:

On Insects:

For Love of Insects, by Thomas Eisner

American Insects: A Handbook of the Insects of America North of Mexico, by Ross H. Arnett, Jr., PhD

The Superorganism: The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness of Insect Societies, by Bert Holldobler and E. O. Wilson

Insect Lives: Stories of Mystery and Romance From a Hidden World, ed. by Erich Hoyt and Ted Schultz


On Insects and Plants:

Interrelationships Between Insects and Plants, by Pierre Jolivet

Insects and Flowers: The Biology of a Partnership, by Friedrich G. Barth

Insects on Plants: Community Patterns and Mechanisms, by D.R. Strong, J. H. Lawton, and Sir Richard Southwood

Insect/Plant Relationships: Symposia of the Royal Entomological Society of London: Number 6, ed. by H.F. Van Emden


From Our Special Collections:

American Entomology, or, Descriptions of the Insects of North America: Illustrated by Coloured Figures From Original Drawings Executed From Nature, by Thomas Say, 1824

As Nature Shows Them: Moths and Butterflies of the United States, East of the Rocky Mountains, by Sherman Denton, 1900


Readers' Advisory

If you are interested in insects in general, also take a look at some of our more specific sections on BeesButterfliesGrasshoppers, and others!


Previous Library Profiles:

February 2014: Beverley Nichols