BOOK REVIEW: Sex on Six Legs: Lessons on Life, Love and Language from the Insect World by Marlene Zuk

Review by Susan Milius

People are more afraid of insects than of death, or so says a survey that Zuk cites a bit skeptically. (Heights and public speaking are supposedly scarier than both.) Surveys aside, bugs certainly have a PR problem, and Zuk is out to win friends for them.

Her wry, amiable volume makes a case for appreciating the wonders and weirdnesses of the most numerous of animals. As she puts it, an insect-of-the-month calendar might not have to repeat a species for well over 80,000 years. The book thus falls into the paradoxical tradition of the why-not-to-hate-bugs book that appeals especially to people who already love them. An earlier classic of this microgenre, May Berenbaum’s Bugs in the System, has amused insect enthusiasts since 1996, and Zuk, a behavioral ecologist, focuses on more recent research.

Despite the title, which depending on personal tastes can be a plus or a minus for a commuter read, the book gives clear accounts of a wide range of research beyond sex: insect personalities, wasp facial recognition, fruit flies artificially bred for intelligence, slave-making ants, hitchhiking blister beetles and much more. One of the more unusual sections is the first, the obligatory chapter on why anybody should care about insects. Along with the expected discussions of ecological importance and value for humankind, Zuk articulates the emotional appeal of humans’ six-legged neighbors. They give people “the ability to glimpse another world,” a spot-on phrase for one of their charms. As Zuk asks, “Who needs to be able to see dead people when you can see live insects?”

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011, 272 p., $25