Wicked Bugs: The Louse that Conquered Napoleon’s Army and Other Diabolical Insects

Amy Stewart
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC
2011; 288 pp.
ISBN 978-1-56512-960-3
$18.95 (Hardcover)

My first encounter with a “wicked bug” occurred the summer I turned fifteen.  At the time, neither I nor my family was aware that the rotting flesh on my leg was the result of a brown recluse bite.  It was almost ten years later while sitting in a medical entomology course that I realized what had caused the loss of a small area of flesh on my left thigh.  Amy Stewart’s latest book, Wicked Bugs: The Louse that Conquered Napoleon’s Army and Other Diabolical Insects tells the tales of similarly destructive, painful, dangerous, horrifying, and deadly species, most of which fall into the category of arthropods.  Educating the general public on how insects, arthropods, and a few gastropods influence humanity and reminding professional entomologists of the gruesome capabilities of our research subjects, Stewart provides historic accounts and stories that keep her reader entertained until the end.

The brown recluse is included in Stewart’s list of “Wicked Bugs,” and she describes the “painful, rotting lesion” that results from its bite.  What is a spider tale doing in a book discussing bugs, you may ask?  Stewart writes in her introduction that while “bug” is not the accurate term to describe all of the creatures she discusses in the book, to most non-entomologists, the term “bug” refers to “any number of tiny slithering and crawling creatures.” Stewart does acknowledge her intentional misuse of the term and explains to her reader the correct definition of a bug.  The introduction also addresses a personal concern of my own, the fact that this book may spark additional (and often unfounded) fear of insects.  She explains that many insects are quite beneficial to humans, and that learning to distinguish between the good and the bad will keep you healthy. The tales associated with these bad bugs are meant to keep you intrigued and curious.

Stewart’s book contains several short sections, allowing it to serve as a reference book.  The reader does not need to read each section as it is placed within the book, but is free to select sections based on interest. All sections are labeled in the top right corner as destructive, painful, dangerous, horrible, or deadly, providing an indication of the damaging capabilities of each species.  The majority of these sections highlight a single species, and are placed in alphabetical order by the common name of the insect.  Additionally, Stewart provides the species name, size, family, habitat, and distribution for each of these arthropods.  Each section begins with a story demonstrating the influence this “bug” has had on individuals or groups of people.  Stewart then goes on to describe certain aspects of the biology, providing descriptions of morphology, habitat, and behavior.  Each section provides a beautiful black and white drawing of the species; however, using these illustrations for identification purposes would not be possible.  At the end of each section, Stewart lists a few relatives of the species.

Thirteen of the fifty sections in the book describe groups of arthropods that are somehow related in their behavior, habitat, or (in the case of the section on arrow poisons) their use as a toxin.  These sections are interspersed between those describing a single species.  In the section entitled “She’s Just Not That Into You,” Stewart depicts the often gruesome mating habits of several “bugs,” including praying mantids, crab spiders, fireflies, and the banana slug.  In the section “The Ants Go Marching,” the stings, bites, and destructive capabilities of fire, driver, bullet, and Argentine ants are described.  Stewart also provides the Schmidt Sting Pain Index which ranks the stings of various ants, bees, and wasps.
Sections on destructive pests include insects that damage crops, human structures, and forests, with one section entitled “The Gardener’s Dirty Dozen” listing twelve of the common garden pests.  Arthropods that made it onto the painful list include the bombardier beetle, the Brazilian wandering spider, and the chigoe flea.  “Bugs” considered dangerous include the filth fly, due to its ability to transmit the bacteria that causes trachoma, and the deer tick, which transmits Lyme disease.  A section entitled “Zombies” is placed under the “horrible” category and describes the ability of various parasitoids to alter the behavior of their hosts.  I found the description of the maggots that make their homes under our skin and within our bodies most interesting.

Only four species were deemed deadly: the assassin bug, tsetse fly, oriental rat flea, and mosquito.  Stewart tells of the discovery that assassin or kissing bugs transmit Trypanosoma cruzi and provides descriptions written by Charles Darwin of the bites associated with this insect.  The ability of the tsetse fly to transmit Trypanosoma sp. protozoa to humans, resulting in sleeping sickness and the progression of the disease throughout the body, is described.  The influence of the Oriental rat flea on societies through plague transmission is discussed.  And Stewart explains the responsibility of Anopheles sp. mosquitoes in transmitting malaria throughout history and gives current statistics on the prevalence of malaria worldwide. 

Stewart’s book provides non-entomologists with valuable descriptions and morphology of several “wicked” species.  I hope that these tales will demonstrate the awe-inspiring abilities of these creatures and result in a desire to learn more.  As an entomologist, I found that this book provided a great review of medical entomology and introduced me to fascinating stories of historical insect encounters.  I believe that this book could serve as a great reference for entomology instructors and interested amateurs alike.  Perhaps if Wicked Bugs had been available to me at the age of fifteen, I would have better understood my encounter with the brown recluse.

Dr. Beth Choate
North Central Agricultural Research Laboratory
Brookings, SD, 57006

American Entomologist
Vol. 57, No.4, Winter 2011