Of course, we know what bugs are good for, but just in case there is anybody out there who doesn't, Professor Waldbauer makes an elaborate argument in twelve chapters under four general headings: Helping Plants, Helping Animals, Limiting Population Growth, and Cleaning Up. Waldbauer manages to be fascinating, as indeed, I think an entomologist ought to be, since insects really are something amazing, as well as thorough, but never boring or tedious. He has that rare gift of being able to present the reader with a lot of information and to make it clear, interesting, and a pleasure to read. One is left with the overwhelming conviction that without bugs we humans could not exist, period. Next to microbial life, bugs form the most fundamental life force on this planet, and like the microbes, they will be here long after we are gone. We need to make our peace with them, and join with them in keeping the planet's life in balance.
The subtitle, "Insects in the Web of Life," really says what this book is about as well as it can be said in just a few words: all life forms are interconnected and interdependent and part of the larger web of life. It isn't just the pollination of our plants by insects that is irreplaceable, nor their control of one another, nor their policing of the landscape, nor even their position near the base of the entire food chain that serves us, but it is their gigantic presence in nearly all the diverse ecologies of the planet that cannot be replaced. Remove the insects and the entire eco-structure collapses. Demonstrating this truth, Waldbauer's text emphasizes how bugs interact especially with plants, how plants take advantage of them as well as how they take advantage of plants for subsistence and reproduction, and how in many cases a symbiosis has been reached so that plant and animal work together for their mutual good. The stories of ants protecting trees and of wasps and bees and others pollinating plants are marvelous tales of intricate mutualisms honed by nature over the eons, tales so startling as to defy belief, except that we know they are true. An orchid shaped like female insect, giving off the female pheromone so as to entice the male insect to "mate" in order to spread the plant's pollen, is one example. The nutritious elaisomes that grow on the seeds of plants that attract and feed ants so that they might distribute the plant's seeds and even protect the plant from predators, is another. The ants that live on acacias that can actually smell large animals (including humans) and thereby congregate on the branches nearest the approaching animal ready to swarm and bite should the animal dare to touch the tree, is still another.
Along the way, Waldbauer shows us what bugs and their stories can teach us about the nature of life itself--what life is truly like beyond the artificial confines of human culture--and not so incidentally, about ourselves, if we care to recognize the many affinities between our lives, especially our economic lives, and that of bugs, most notably of course the social insects who herd animals, plant crops and harvest them, who fight battles and construct dwellings.
I could go on and on, but just let me say that this is the most informative book on bugs that I have ever read (and I've read dozens) and one of the most readable. Moreover it is beautifully designed (by Marianne Perlak) and beautifully edited (by Nancy Clemente). The black, white and gray illustrations of bugs and plants by Meredith Waterstraat are elegant and serve as a fine complement to the text. This book should win some awards. It is the kind of book you might want to buy for yourself and to give as a present to anyone interested in nature from gardeners to professors of biology. This is a gem that can be appreciated by and benefit both professionals and the general public.