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Amy Stewart Talk About Wicked Bugs

There's no bug too wicked, they each have a story.

First Wicked Plants, now Wicked Bugs -- Amy Stewart is fascinated with all things wicked. Here's more from Amy about her new book that's perfect for taking a break from spring gardening:

Jennifer Haupt: Tell me about your love of bugs.

Amy Stewart: It's really a fascination with all things wicked. From the minute I came up with the idea for Wicked Plants, I knew I wanted to follow it up with Wicked Bugs--the two things just go together. My goal, of course, was not to write a field guide or a dry reference book, but rather to tell stories. We are all fascinated by murder and intrigue and drama, and I think people forget that nature is replete with drama! So I went looking for tales of victims and villains, true crime, and vast human tragedies that were somehow connected to bugs. As with Wicked Plants, if I couldn't find a compelling story, that bug or that plant didn't make the cut.

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And I should say, before I start getting emails from entomologists, that there is a technical definition of a "true bug." In this case, I'm using the lay person's definition of "bug" to refer to any creepy, crawly, slithering creature. So that means that there are spiders, worms, and centipedes in the book-all kinds of critters that are not technically bugs.

JH: In your opinion, is anything in the natural world really "wicked"? In other words, does everything - even the icky, ugly pests in our gardens - serve a purpose?

AS: Yes, of course. Everything has a purpose. Bugs eat plants. That's what they do. It's how they stay alive. They're part of the food chain, breaking down plant matter and helping to turn it into soil. And of course they are themselves a food source. Baby birds do not eat birdseed-they eat bugs brought to them by their parents. A bug-free garden would be a terrible thing.

So for the most part, a bug that eats plants is not particularly wicked. I did include a little chapter called "Gardener's Dirty Dozen" about twelve of the most-hated garden pests, but beyond that, I don't consider a bug particularly wicked just because it eats plants. Some of them, like the Rocky Mountain locust or the boll weevil, have eaten plants in such a way that they have caused catastrophic damage and suffering on a grand scale. That meets my definition of "wicked"-that it has impacted human affairs for the worse.

JH: Do you have a favorite Wicked Bug? A personal hero in the bug world?

AS: I was really fascinated by the assassin bug. It's a large and interesting-looking bug, and it can be quite harmful: in parts of South America, assassin bugs transmit a terrible ailment called Chagas disease. Some people think that Chagas is what made Charles Darwin so sick. He definitely encountered, and described, the bug on his voyage on board the Beagle.

There's an interesting story about colonialism here, too, because Chagas disease was entirely unknown until plantations started to push against the jungle. Assassin bugs had been in the jungle all along, quietly passing Chagas from one little animal to another. It wasn't until we started cutting down that landscape to build plantations that the assassin bug became a serious threat to humans.

JH: How about a favorite experience with bugs?

Well, keeping in mind that for the purpose of this book, I'm using the term "bug" to mean all kinds of creatures-I'll tell you about the time I had a European cross spider living in my kitchen. This is a totally harmless spider, and quite a lovely little thing. She spun the most perfect web across the inside of my kitchen window-it filled the whole frame-and I couldn't bring myself to move her outside. So she stayed there for a couple of months, getting bigger and bigger, until I finally called a local spider expert at our university and asked him if it was going to be okay to let her live inside all winter long. He said, "Well, you can keep her, but I should warn you that she's pregnant, and in October she's going to give birth to about two hundred babies."

That was enough! I mean, one spider is interesting, but two hundred spiders? That's taking it too far. I moved her outside.

JH: There are some pretty sinister, gruesome insect characters profiled in this book. Was there a bug just too evil to include?

AS: Oh no, there's no such thing as a bug that's too evil. This is supposed to be the dark side of the bug world, and it is very dark. I didn't hold back-there are parasites, tapeworms, maggots-I think some people are going to skip those sections, and that's fine with me, but trust me, all of the most evil creatures are represented.

JH: Tell me about the wonderful illustrations in this book, created by Briony Morrow-Cribbs.

AS: Briony illustrated both Wicked Bugs and Wicked Plants with copper plate etchings. This is a very old process. Botanical and scientific books were illustrated with copper plate etchings two hundred years ago, and it's still alive today as an art form. It's rare, though, to see a regular trade hardcover illustrated using such a lavish and time-consuming technique, so I'm really honored to get to work with her.

For every bug, she would draw a sketch first and we would fact-check it to make sure it looked right, and to make sure that the bug had all its anatomy in the right place. Then she'd coat a plate of copper with a wax-like substance and draw the bug into the wax, scraping away at the wax as she drew. The plate gets dipped into a bath of acid, which "bites" at the plate where it is exposed, but doesn't touch the part still covered in the waxy stuff. Then she wipes the plate clean and you can see her drawing, etched very lightly into the copper. She inks the plate, runs it through a press, and that's an etching.

It's an amazing process, and the result is that the bugs-and the plants-have this slightly menacing feel, which just comes from the richness and detail of the etching.

JH: What's the one true thing you learned from researching Wicked Bugs?

AS: We humans are not just part of the ecosystem-we are ourselves ecosystems. To people who are terrified of bugs, worms, spiders, bacteria, and basically all small, moving things, I have bad news. We are not just inhabitants of this earth, we are inhabited. And that is, by the way, a good thing-usually.

Amy Stewart is the award-winning author of five books on the perils and pleasures of the natural world, including three New York Times bestsellers, Wicked Bugs, Wicked Plants and Flower Confidential.

 

Jennifer Haupt is a writer based in Seattle, Washington. She has written for O, The Oprah Magazine, Readers Digest, and The Christian Science Monitor.

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