World of insects

Print edition : November 25, 2016
An authoritative book on insect lives covering a wide range of creatures, some familiar and many unfamiliar.

THE world of insects has been opening before us in the past few years. First we had Meenakshi Venkatraman’s brilliant field guide to Indian insects, followed by Isaac Khehimkar’s much anticipated book, The Butterflies of India. There have been two excellent handy field guides in Tamil, one on butterflies by Bhanumathi and the other on dragonflies by Jegannathan and Bhanumathi. And now comes this sparkling new book on insects.

For many years Geetha Iyer has been active in the realm of wildlife education with her engaging articles on insects and other small lives (“The world of insects”, eight-part series; Frontline, 2011 ). She introduced a world comparatively unknown to wildlifers—the world of small lives.

I have observed that readability is high in her articles and she is able to pass on scientific knowledge in a palatable format. Many of her pieces were a result of her fieldwork, and this experience comes in handy when she sits down to write on the subject. Latest findings from all over the world have been included in this book.

“Insects are a superb paradigm for evolution. For more than 400 million years, insects have been the most dominant animal group on the earth and possibly the most successful in the evolutionary history of the earth,” says the foreword. And India being a tropical country, it is particularly rich in life forms.

With a brief section on the myth and history of silk as the backdrop, she proceeds to explore the little known world. We are given a wealth of information on the life cycle of insects, their feeding habits and their habitats. Geetha Iyer pays special attention to insects that weave for various purposes.

It is not just the familiar silkworm that is into weaving; there are others such as hornets, wasps and bees. The author focusses attention on a few species of ants that use silk to build nests, including weaver ants, which, incidentally, are eaten with relish in certain areas of Madhya Pradesh. She points out that for many insects, silk is the thread that binds their lives.

The staggering diversity of insect life hits you. For instance, the group of praying mantis has 2,400 varieties and there are 12,000 kinds of caddis flies. She points out that the world of insects holds many surprises and proceeds to tell us about a wasp that lays its eggs on the body of a particular variety of caterpillar. The wasp chooses the host caterpillar at a specific stage so that it will last until the eggs hatch out. How do wasps identify the caterpillars that are in the correct stage? By identifying the chemical that the worm emits.

The text is authoritative and covers a wide range of creatures, from moths to mantidflies, some familiar and many unfamiliar. The photographs accompanying the text have captured interesting insect behaviour, like the one showing the mantispid laying eggs or the stalked eggs of the green lacewing. The author has made impressive use of microphotography.

It is unfortunate that the book does not carry an index, which would have considerably increased its utility. With facilities such as word processing available now in publishing, I am surprised that this important limb of a book is neglected.

The detailed bibliography provided will be immensely helpful to students and researchers who want to pursue the subject further. The book is neatly produced, with reader-friendly fonts, well-laid out photographs and an attractive cover.

The book reminds me of what Peter Matthiessen said: “One way to grasp the main perspectives of environment and biodiversity is to understand the origins and precious nature of a single living form, a single manifestation of the miracle of existence; if one has truly understood a crane —or a leaf or a cloud or a frog—one has understood everything.” This is what Geetha Iyer tries to achieve through her work.

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