The "weapons" in the title are mostly chemical. They are poisons that insects and their kin use to protect themselves from predators. Spiders, insects, snakes and other animals use poisons to subdue their victims as part of their preying arsenal, but what the authors focus on in this unusual book are chemicals used by "many-legged creatures" as defensive weapons. Pick up certain beetles or fly larvae or especially some grasshoppers and caterpillars and they will vomit noxious stuff on you. It will smell bad, it may contain harmful bacteria, and it will be "spiked" with deterrent chemicals stemming from plants eaten by the insect.
Or the insect may defecate on you. Imagine that you are the size of the insect, one of its predators. Imagine the effect of copious amounts of feces coming at you. The authors show how these defenses actually work on predators like wolf spiders and even small rodents. I was especially struck by how often these defenses apparently evolved as defenses against ants.
Of course many insects spit, spray, sting, and bite in response to being disturb or threatened. This is how they deliver their noxious chemicals, their poisons, their foul-smelling stuff, their stuff that stings, debilitates and even kills. Eisner, Eisner and Siegler give numerous disquieting examples of exactly how this is done in 69 very creepy chapters. Each chapter is dedicated to a particular creature or Family of creatures from vinegaroons (Chapter 1) through bombardier beetles (Chapter 35) to the honey bee (Chapter 69). Millipedes, cockroaches, ants, aphids, termites and many others make their gruesome appearance.
Gruesome...? Well, it's all in the eye of the beholder, I suppose. The many photos of the creatures that accompany the text are arguably beautiful. With some detachment I can see the earwig (Doru taeniatum) shown in all its black and brown and tan glory on page 77 as quite attractive. (However the beauty of the photo of the cockroach with its egg case hanging out the back on page 59 is a bit beyond my ability to fully appreciate.)
Nonetheless I realize that people who collect and study insects do find them attractive, and properly seen they are as beautiful as...well, Penelope Cruz. Insects are marvelous beings with the most amazing talents, their abilities well beyond that of modern science to emulate. Would that we could build robots with the ability of the ant! Still I must say that for many readers this book could prove an unsettling experience. But in truth the photos are amazing. They are brilliantly colored and sharply focused, showing the creatures in various poses, eating, mating, being eaten, fighting, secreting, guarding eggs, etc. And there are some very nice shots taken through microscopes that reveal wondrous detail.
Clearly "Secret Weapons" is a book for enthusiasts and professionals. Not only are the scientific names given for each creature along with the common names, the authors also give schematic drawings of the elemental composition of each of the chemicals used by the many-legged creatures! Furthermore there is a chapter on "How to Study Insects and Their Kin" in which the kinds of equipment (plastic bags, forceps, nets, vials, hand lenses, scalpels, petri dishes, insect pins, etc.) used by professionals are not only listed and described but presented in color photos. Each chapter concludes with scientific journal and book references for further study.
This book is both incredibly interesting and beautifully presented. Each chapter comprises accessible text, excellent photography and an extremely knowledgeable and well researched guide to the strategies and defences adopted by selected arthropod groups. The species included are North American but are no less fascinating by this limitation of range. The book centres around the chemical defences and chemical formulae and references are provided in each account. This is a wonderful book providing a solid feel for the diversity of these beautiful creatures - a joy!