'Wicked Bugs' An Encyclopedia Of Insect Villains

Amy Stewart, who brought us a disturbing slender volume called Wicked Plants has a new and perhaps even more disturbing book called Wicked Bugs. Guest host Linda Wertheimer talks with Stewart about her A-Z list of the most loathsome insects and the havoc they cause.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

Amy Stewart, who brought us a disturbing slender volume called "Wicked Plants," has a new book, more disturbing in my view, called "Wicked Bugs." The subtitle is "The Louse That Conquered Napoleon's Army and Other Diabolical Insects." Amy Stewart joins us from the studios of Wisconsin Public Radio in Madison. Welcome.

Ms. AMY STEWART (Author, "Wicked Bugs") Thank you.

WERTHEIMER: Now, your book opens with a warning - we are seriously outnumbered - and asks the reader to imagine what it would be like if bugs and humans were the same size, which definitely adds to the creepiness of this experience. How outnumbered are we?

Ms. STEWART: You know, there are 10 quintillion insects alive on the planet right now. And what that works out to is 200 million living insects for every one of us. So we are very much outnumbered.

WERTHEIMER: Are you trying to scare us? I mean, do bugs scare you?

Ms. STEWART: No. I'm on the opposite extreme. I should probably be a little bit more afraid of bugs. I find them so fascinating that I always want to get down on my hands and knees and get a closer look.

I think most people are far too afraid of bugs. For the most part they do a lot of good, or at the very least they can't really harm us. So it was actually some work to round up a hundred or so that are so dangerous that they are worthy of our fears of them.

WERTHEIMER: You provide a wonderful list of words that describe fear of specific bugs.

Ms. STEWART: It is interesting, the extent to which we have such specific phobias. Isopterophobia, which is a fear of insects that eat wood. People even have a fear of butterflies.

WERTHEIMER: Lepidopterophobia.

Ms. STEWART: Lepidopterophobia - a fear of butterflies. And also delusional parasitosis, which is the mistaken belief that you're being infested with parasites.

WERTHEIMER: I thought the word for fear of cockroaches was good.

Ms. STEWART: Katsaridaphobia.

WERTHEIMER: Katsaridaphobia. It's a very beautiful word. As it turns out, there really is a reason to be afraid of cockroaches.

Ms. STEWART: That's right. You know, for a while there I thought I wasn't going to get to include cockroaches, because I thought, you know, we're sort of horrified by them. We hate the way they look. But I wasn't really sure if they did anything all that awful.

And then I found studies going back to the 1960s that showed that cockroaches are actually capable of transmitting diseases, including hepatitis. The problem with cockroaches is that they like to travel between areas of filth and areas where there is food. And in doing so they move back and forth a lot of very nasty germs.

WERTHEIMER: Which is the most dangerous bug?

Ms. STEWART: The most dangerous bug in terms of the number of people it has killed has got to be the mosquito. The mosquito is responsible for one in five insect-transmitted diseases. Of course, we all know malaria. But there are many others.

WERTHEIMER: Well, now, always keeping in mind that our program is on the air when people are sort of struggling through their first cup of coffee. Let me ask you about what you say is perhaps the best known and most feared spider in the world - the black widow.

Ms. STEWART: Oh, the black widow. Really actually a beautiful spider. I mean, jet black with this red hourglass shape on her belly. I went back and really looked for early, early news accounts of people having, you know, terrible run-ins with black widows. And I really couldn't find much until about the 1920s and 1930s.

There was a guy who left a suicide note in 1935. And he claimed to have committed suicide via black widow spider. He had ordered one from California that was guaranteed to kill him. And that got into the media and was very sensationalized. And there started to be more and more really exaggerated stories about black widows.

Now, you're definitely not going to enjoy a run-in with a black widow. It's a lot of terrible pain. It's going to make you quite miserable. But there are no real verified accounts of people dying from black widows. And in fact they don't want to hurt you. They would much rather be left alone in the corner of your garage or your garden shed to live out their lives in peace.

WERTHEIMER: There are a number of interesting tidbits in this book, you know, things that you might want to work into a conversation. What is your favorite bug fact?

Ms. STEWART: I really like the history. I wanted to tell stories of famous people, notorious murders, so that it's in some ways less about the bugs and really more about us and our run-ins with them. And one of my favorite ones was actually Christopher Columbus and his crew.

They encountered a very nasty little sand flea called the chigoe flea that burrows into people's toenails and lays eggs and makes an awful mess. The Santa Maria ran aground in what is now Haiti. And Columbus decided that he couldn't possibly take the crew on the other two boats. So he said, look, I want you to haul all that wood ashore and I want you to build yourself a fort and you're going to stay here and I'm going back to Spain. They were none too happy about this. I mean, he was like the world's worst boss.

And they did have to stay. He did go back to Spain. They encountered chigoe fleas and much worse, because when Columbus came back for them, they were gone and there was no sign of the fort. So, a grim but fascinating story that I did not learn in history class.

WERTHEIMER: Amy Stewart is the author of "Wicked Bugs: The Louse that Conquered Napoleon's Army and Other Diabolical Insects." She joined us from Wisconsin Public Radio in Madison. Amy Stewart, thank you very much.

Ms. STEWART: Thank you.

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