Best Science Books of 2017: Entomology

This was a great year for entomology books, with some very good catalogues published (yay, new volume of Palaearctic Coleoptera!). I don’t include any of these here, since they’re too regional or only of interest to taxonomic specialists who already have them from day one. Instead, the six books here comprise: three textbooks with varied focuses (Insects,Insect Biodiversity, and Insects As Food and Feed); a book on why we don’t kill all insects (Why Every Fly Counts); a book with magnificent pictures of dead insects (Microsculpture); and a book on the scientists who study and partially kill insects (Bugged).

Textbooks are rarely recommendable to lay readers. They’re just too drily-written and technical, some so much so that they become reference books that you only open to get a specific piece of information but never actually read in any substantial way. David B. Rivers’ Insects: Evolutionary Success, Unrivaled Diversity, and World Domination is the polar opposite of that, part of a new breed of textbooks written in an engaging, vernacular style. Critics may argue that this readability comes at the cost of educational use, authoritativeness, and depth. While it may not be as deep as other leading entomological textbooks, it’s as reliable as any of them, and I would argue that it’s even more usable in education since it gives you, as a lecturer, good language and sentences already tailored for appealing to undergraduates, many of whom are tired of the boring lecture format and are losing attention and not achieving ideal learning goals because of it. This book shares the untangible, non-knowledge part of being an entomologist, which will help captivate your audience: the curiosity, the enthusiasm, the excitement that is part of being part of any science. As the professor, you surely know enough and have access to good resources to supplement or fill in any gaps that you perceive in the book (in my opinion, these are mostly in the morphology and taxonomy sections, for which there are many, many, many alternatives you can draw from). I recommend it highly to any undergraduate, and even to the interested lay reader.

It’s been eight years since the first edition of Foottit & Adler’s Insect Biodiversity: Science and Society, an eight years that saw a veritable change in how entomology is practiced and funded, what with DNA barcoding and the associated additions of species concepts, genomics and its influence on systematics, not to mention the sea change brought about by biodiversity informatics and funders’ loves for databases. There is so much to talk about that the book is now split into two volumes (Volume 2 not out yet). It has in-depth chapters written by the expected authorities, concentrating on regional biodiversities of major zones (Palaearctic, Nearctic, Afrotropical, etc.), summaries of major orders and their practical roles in society and ecology (including medical issues), and sections on the state of entomological biodiversity research (molecular and genomics, species concepts, informatics, etc.). It weighs in at almost a thousand pages, and is basically a must-have for any working entomologist.

Hans-Dietrich Reckhaus’s Why Every Fly Counts: A Documentation about the Value and Endangerment of Insects is a great little book, a good read for anyone who’s ever wondered why we even bother protecting insect diversity and populations when it seems like a lot of them are pests. It’s pretty concise at less than 100 pages, but still manages to cover studies on insect declines as well as the importance of insects in natural and human ecosystems. I’d definitely recommend it to teenagers and lay readers.

Insects will be one of the main food sources in the future. Cows, pigs, and chickens are simply not sustainable, and the sooner we (the collective we of humanity) can wean ourselves off them, the sooner we can begin the daunting task of trying to survive in the new world of anthropogenic climate change. Insects As Food and Feed: From Production to Consumption, edited by Arnold van Huis and Jeffery K. Tomberlin, is an all-encompassing work that goes far beyond other entomophagy books. Instead of just lingering on the ubiquity of insect eating around the non-European world, there are chapters on production and rearing, legal frameworks, medical concerns (allergies!), marketing, even insect welfare. I think it’s a very important publication at this point when entomophagy is slowly but surely getting more acceptance, and it’s time for it to go mainstream.

1419726951I really, really didn’t want to put this book on the list, because of deep-seated bitterness. My current research project is the development a high-resolution, rapid macro photography system for taking pictures of insects and their genitals (and anything else between 4 mm and 100 µm). The pictures I make are pretty much the same as what Levon Biss showcases in Microsculpture: Portraits of Insects, except I work in a museum with a specific funding goal, so all my specimens are primary types that cannot be cleaned, and so are super-dusty and not worthy of publication. But I had a hope to publish a photo book sometime, and I was immensely disappointed when I saw it’s been done already, and figured I’d leave it off the list out of spite. But jealousy is a path to the Dark Side, and the photos that Biss produced are just so spectacular and stunning, and as a fellow studio micro photographer, I am blown away by his artistry and technical skill. It’s a magnificent book. You need to get it if you’re looking for a coffee table book with a different theme.

Whether it’s counting fly sperm per ejaculation or watching cockroaches run on tiny treadmills, entomology (and zoology in general) requires you to do some really weird things sometimes. But no matter how strange and useless our research may seem, it always leads back to some sort of use and knowledge, and this is what David MacNeal’s Bugged: The Insects Who Rule the World and the People Obsessed with Them is fundamentally about: the big variety of fields that entomologists contribute to. It’s funny, verging on the irreverent, there are great interviews with entomologists of all stripes, and it introduces you to the whole world of entomology. There are plenty of insect facts sprinkled into it, so it’s not just a career guide. A perfect read for a nature- and biology-minded teenager or adult.

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