4 Wicked Bugs: Mosquitoes, Chigger Mites and More

Whether you consider bugs friends or foes, you’ll love this excerpt from “Wicked Bugs” that explores the world of diabolical insects.

| May 2012

  • The bed bug travels at night, lurking in low light, feeling its way toward warmth and the tantalizing odor of carbon dioxide.
    Illustration by Briony Morrow-Cribbs
  • A severe brown recluse bite manifests itself as a nasty, swollen skin ulcer with dead tissue in the center.
    Illustration by Briony Morrow-Cribbs
  • Once the chigger has enjoyed its one and only blood meal, it matures into an adult mite and feeds only on plants for the rest of its life.
    Illustration by Briony Morrow-Cribbs
  • In northern Canada, when mosquito populations are high, people can get bitten as many as 280 to 300 times per minute.
    Illustration by Briony Morrow-Cribbs
  • In “Wicked Bugs,” Amy Stewart has tracked down over 100 of our worst entomological foes — creatures that infest, infect and generally wreak havoc on human affairs. Beautiful etchings and drawings accompany stories of history, science, murder and intrigue that begin in your own backyard.
    Photo courtesy Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill (c) 2011

With wit, style and exacting research, Amy Stewart has uncovered the most terrifying and titillating stories of bugs gone wild. Her book, Wicked Bugs (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2011), delves into the extraordinary powers of six- and eight-legged creatures. In this excerpt from the book’s introduction and four of its bug features, learn about the thrilling and frightening potential of four wicked bugs that can be found in most any home or garden: the bed bug, brown recluse, chigger mite and mosquito. 

Warning: We Are Seriously Outnumbered

In 1909, the Chicago Daily Tribune ran an article titled “If Bugs Were the Size of Men.” It began with this ominous statement: “All the powers of destruction that were ever invented by man are puerile and absurd compared with those with which nature has invested insects.” The reporter went on to ask what would happen “if some mighty magician’s wand should be waved over the world tomorrow and mankind be reduced to the size of insects, while these tiny creatures should reach the size of men.”

Chicagoans must have read with alarm of the calamities that would befall them if they were to trade places with bugs: the giant Hercules beetle was not just formidable, but immoral, with a taste for drinking and brawling; bark beetles would mow down massive fortresses; armies would be helpless against the artillery of the bombardier beetle; and spiders would “destroy elephants . . . a man’s only possible salvation would be that he was too insignificant to attack.” Even lions would cower in fear against these new winged and multilegged enemies.

The reporter’s intent was, undoubtedly, to make the point that insects are powerful in their own way and to suggest that only their diminutive size keeps them from conquering the world.

If only that were true. In fact, insects have changed the course of history. They have halted soldiers in their tracks. They have driven farmers off their land. They have devoured cities and forests, and inflicted pain, suffering, and death upon hundreds of millions.

This is not to say that they don’t do good as well. They pollinate the plants that feed us, and they are themselves food for creatures up and down the food chain. They do the vital work of decomposition, returning everything from fallen leaves to fallen heroes back to the earth. Any number of insects, from the blow fly to the blister beetle, have proven useful in medicine. And they prey on one another, keeping pests in check. We could not live without them. In fact, indiscriminate pesticide use and destruction of insect habitats is far more harmful than simply learning to live alongside them and to appreciate their finer qualities.



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