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Fireflies, Honey, and Silk

Fireflies, Honey, and Silk

Copyright Date: 2009
Edition: 1
Pages: 248
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  • Book Info
    Fireflies, Honey, and Silk
    Book Description:

    The ink our ancestors wrote with, the beeswax in altar candles, the honey on our toast, the silk we wear. This enchanting book is a highly entertaining exploration of the myriad ways insects have enriched our lives–culturally, economically, and aesthetically. Entomologist and writer Gilbert Waldbauer describes in loving, colorful detail how many of the valuable products insects have given us are made, how they were discovered, and how they have been used through time and across cultures. Along the way, he takes us on a captivating ramble through many far-flung corners of history, mythology, poetry, literature, medicine, ecology, forensics, and more. Enlivened with personal anecdotes from Waldbauer's distinguished career as an entomologist, the book also describes surprising everyday encounters we all experience that were made possible by insects. From butterfly gardens and fly-fishing to insects as jewelry and sex pheromones, this is an eye-opening ode to the wonder of insects that illuminates our extraordinary and essential relationship with the natural world.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94495-4
    Subjects: Zoology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Note
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-4)

    My fascination with insects began on a sunny winter day during grade school in Bridgeport, Connecticut, when I found a big brown cocoon on an apple tree. I had heard that some insects survive the winter snugly encased in silken cocoons, but I wasn’t certain that this thing was a cocoon and hadn’t the vaguest idea of what kind of insect might emerge from it in the spring. Nevertheless, I took it home and put it in a glass jar with a metal top pierced with air holes. Weeks later, the most beautiful and amazing insect I had ever seen...

  6. I Insects People Like
    (pp. 5-28)

    Certain insects have long been favorites of people around the world. Let’s examine a few of them, and also glance at a few others that humans have only grudgingly come to appreciate or admire.

    Most people like or at least tolerate ladybird beetles. These charming little insects and their larvae are well known as devourers of aphids, and are among the most beneficial of the insects. But, generally speaking, people do not like ladybirds just because they help us defeat pest insects. (An exception is some gardeners who even buy semidormant ladybirds by the quart—at considerable expense—and release...

  7. II The Silk We Wear
    (pp. 29-50)

    Many thousands of years ago, the Chinese learned to weave a marvelous cloth from thin silken threads secreted by the salivary glands of an insect—the mulberry silkworm, a caterpillar, the larval stage of the silk moth (Bombyx mori). Like many other insects, silk moth caterpillars use these threads to spin a silken cocoon in which they will molt to the pupa, the transformation stage, in which they metamorphose from the wormlike larval stage to the winged adult stage. Despite its “lowly” origin in the viscera of a mere insect, people all over the world have always loved and greatly...

  8. III Dyeing the Cloth
    (pp. 51-64)

    The Aztecs were wearing ceremonial cloaks dyed a brilliant red when Hernán Cortés and the conquering Spanish invaders, who had come to steal gold from the Indians, confronted Montezuma and his nobles in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán (now Mexico City) in 1519. At that time, the Spaniards didn’t know that the source of the beautiful red dye was the cochineal insect (from the Old Spanishcochinilla,a wood louse), or that it was destined to be the most prized red dye in the world for more than three centuries. As the story, which may be apocryphal, has it, they...

  9. IV Baubles, Bracelets, and Anklets
    (pp. 65-79)

    Imagine my surprise when, on my way home from Mexico some years ago, I saw a large living beetle tethered by a thin silver chain crawling sluggishly on the jacket of a well-dressed middle-aged woman sitting near me on the airplane. It looked to me like a large relative of the famous Egyptian scarab (which you will meet in chapter 5). The use of living insects as jewelry, notes F. Tom Turpin inInsect Appreciation,is not at all uncommon. Large, hardy beetles that do not feed in the adult stage are “commonly collected in Mexico and with rhinestones and...

  10. V Candles, Shellac, and Sealing Wax
    (pp. 80-95)

    In 1569, Father João dos Santos, a Portuguese missionary to the Sofala tribe in what is now Mozambique, wrote that from time to time a small bird would fly through the windows of his mission church and eat bits of wax from the candlesticks on the altar. Herbert Friedmann, who quotes the priest, goes on to say that the priest referred to the bird assazu passaro que come cera,“sazu [its native name], a bird that eats wax.” Later I will come back to the fascinating behavior of this little bird, but first I need to tell you that...

  11. VI Paper and Ink
    (pp. 96-108)

    Noah’s descendants all spoke the same language until they started building the tower of Babel to reach heaven. Then their arrogance so incensed God, Genesis tells us, that he scattered them over the Earth and “confounded their language” so that they could no longer understand one another. According to the science writer Andrew Lawler, there are indeed almost seven thousand different languages. (But Jessica Ebert reports that at least half of them will disappear in the next hundred years.) Fewer than one hundred scripts—ways of recording words on paper—have appeared over the millennia, however. For example, the alphabet...

  12. VII Butterflies in Your Tummy
    (pp. 109-126)

    When I arrived at a party given by the entomologists of the Illinois Natural History Survey, I was greeted at the door by one of my hosts carrying a bowl of French-fried caterpillars. They were the big, fat kind commonly known as corn earworms, which you sometimes find under the husks of an ear of sweet corn, munching on the kernels at its tip. Like all of the guests, I was urged to try one. Even though they looked tempting, as crisp and brown as potato chips, I really didn’t want to eat one. Like almost all of us in...

  13. VIII Satisfying the Sweet Tooth
    (pp. 127-153)

    Honey was virtually the only sweet available to the people of Europe and North Africa for thousands of years until sugar cane was brought to the Mediterranean area from China. We learn from Eva Crane that nine thousand years ago, during the middle Stone Age, a primitive artist drew a picture in a rock shelter in Spain of a person robbing honey from a nest of wild bees. In ancient Egypt, according to Percy Newberry, honey was so highly prized that

    two important officials of the oldest period … were closely concerned with the use of the seal, and their...

  14. IX Cures and Nostrums
    (pp. 154-173)

    When William Beebe excavated an underground nest of leaf-cutter ants in 1921 in British Guiana (now the nation Guyana), he was attacked by a horde of the furiously defensive ants. Among them were tiny workers, others of medium size, and gigantic soldiers almost an inch long with huge, powerful mandibles that they viciously and firmly sank into the leather of his boots. When he unpacked these boots the following year, he “found the heads and jaws of two [of the soldiers] still firmly attached, relics of some forgotten foray of the preceding year.” He went on to say, “This mechanical...

  15. X Insect Pets and Performers
    (pp. 174-193)

    Sometimes a field cricket would move into our home in autumn and take up residence in the fireplace in our family room. He was a welcome guest. We seldom saw him, but my wife, daughters, and I enjoyed his cheery chirping in the evening. (Don’t fret! The cricket was gone before we used that fireplace.) Some people don’t welcome crickets into their homes, probably because they equate them with cockroaches. But many do welcome them—especially in the Orient, as you will soon see, and more often than you might expect in Europe and North America. In Charles Dickens’sThe...

  16. EPILOGUE. The Ecological Context
    (pp. 194-202)

    We have considered insects mainly as creatures that please us or are directly useful to us in some way. Fireflies flashing in the night are a delight to watch, the cheerful song of the cricket on the hearth charms the ear, and the honey that bees make from the sweet nectar of flowers pleases the palate. Insects are much more than that, though, and I want to broaden our view of the natural world by briefly viewing insects from another perspective: as animals that live in the real world of complex ecosystems, in which they depend on and interact with...

  17. Selected References
    (pp. 203-214)
  18. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 215-216)
  19. Index
    (pp. 217-233)
  20. Back Matter
    (pp. 234-234)