Insect Development and Evolution

Bruce S. Heming
Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY
2003, 444 pp.
Price: $89.95
ISBN: 0-8014-3933-7

Insects are very useful for the study of animal development. In particular, molecular genetic approaches using the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster, have produced some of the most significant conceptual and factual advances in our understanding of the development of all animals. This widely recognized fact, which was acknowledged by honoring Drosophila researchers with the 1995 Nobel prize in Physiology or Medicine, explains why the embryonic development of this little fly is covered in depth in most textbooks of animal development (e.g., Scott Gilbert’s Developmental Biology, Lewis Wolpert and co-authors’ Principles of Development; Peter Lawrence’s The Making of a Fly).

With the exception of the hormonal control of metamorphosis and the development of imaginal discs, however, few other aspects of the development of insects are included in such textbooks. Yet, how the egg of a particular insect species develops into an adult includes many more than these few topics. In addition, the same developmental process can differ significantly across (and even within) insect orders. In Insect Development and Evolution, Bruce Heming has provided an excellent, up-to-date book that includes the essential chapters on the development of the most specious group of animals on earth.

This well written and illustrated textbook covers the embryonic and postembryonic development of insects and their evolution. This area of developmental biology is factually diverse because different insect groups have sometimes found varied solutions to the same problems, from how to mate and make an embryo to how to mature into an adult. It also includes information obtained using different approaches, from “silk and wax” (e.g., classic ligature experiments that demonstrated the hormonal control of molting and metamorphosis) to molecular genetics (e.g., the molecular bases of A/P axis formation in Drosophila).

Heming has tamed this disparate field by producing a well-structured book and providing an evolutionary framework to every topic. The text balances descriptive and more mechanistic information, the emphasis being dictated by the current state of knowledge of the topic covered. It also provides clear explanations of important concepts in developmental biology, as well as the history and actors involved in key findings in insect development.

The 13 chapters of Insect Development and Evolution are divided into four sections of roughly similar length: female and male reproductive systems and sex determination (chapters 1–4), embryonic development (5–8), postembryonic development (9–12), and hexapod ontogeny and evolution (13). Each chapter provides a good overview of the topic and addresses the variations that occur in different insect groups. The evolutionary variation of a given character is effectively represented graphically by the repeated use of the same evolutionary tree onto which is added the variation seen in this character among insect orders.

The text is complemented by an adequate number of figures. Most of these have been taken from other sources and, unlike the figures in most textbooks, are all in black and white. This “no frills” choice could be a benefit because it constrains the choice of figures to those that are clearest (and cuts production costs). It is also a plus for teachers like myself, who whenever possible, still use transparencies in their lectures because black-and-white figures can be photocopied onto transparencies with no loss of information.

This book is a tour de force that makes the general and specific details of the development of insects accessible. As a result, Insect Development and Evolution is useful in upper undergraduate and graduate courses in insect development, and more generally, in courses in developmental biology; it is also an invaluable reference for researchers in these fields and insect biologists in general. The burgeoning field of “Evo–devo,” in particular, should welcome this book; every chapter documents the huge diversity as well as the conservation in the developmental processes used by members of this taxon.

As with any book that attempts to cover such a huge diverse field, the choice and coverage of topics may not satisfy everyone. At some level, the coverage of Insect Development and Evolution is necessarily superficial. Three hundred and eighty-three text pages is hardly enough to cover the requisite topics in any depth. I have used this book in a course in insect development, and there are topics that I wish were more extensively covered. However, frequent use of the extensive bibliography of 1,804 references, which span more than 100 years of research up to 2001, always provides leads to materials for all but the most specialized questions.

Other readers, by contrast, may find some topics arcane or their coverage too detailed. To those readers, I say be grateful that this book exists, as the information that has been compiled here—often for the first time—is mostly dispersed in hundreds of primary research papers. As we go from understanding how animals develop to understanding how animal diversity and evolution occurs, we will appreciate the tremendous effort that Bruce Heming has made on our behalf by collecting this information in this single accessible source.

Furthermore, I advocate expanding the book to include a description of laboratory exercises. In my experience, insects provide materials for exceptional developmental biology labs. Immature stages (embryos, larvae, nymphs, or pupae) from different insect groups (hemimetabolous insects such as crickets or grasshoppers; holometabolous ones such as Tribolium, Manduca, and Drosophila) are easily available at low cost and can be used in simple experiments and in conjunction with readily available probes (e.g., antibodies) to demonstrate critical concepts in developmental biology. I hope that Bruce Heming will be willing to take on the challenge of producing such a companion volume!

 John Ewer
Cornell University, Department of Entomology
5130 Comstock Hall, Ithaca, NY 14853
American Entomologist
Vol. 52, No.4, Winter 2006