Sunday, July 22, 2012

Fireflies, Honey, and Silk by Gilbert Waldbauer

Fireflies, Honey, and Silk by Gilbert Waldbauer is an entertaining and engrossing description of how insects have forever been of the utmost importance for human survival and progress. Ink, wax, honey, fibers, certain foods and medicines, colorants, music and jewelry are a few products that insects have provided us over the past fifty centuries or more. The author describes myriad ways in which we have used insects and products derived from their habitats. For example, honeycomb of a bee supplies both beeswax and honey. The gall made by wasps has forever been an ingredient of inks. Cocoons of silkworms have given us clothes that many poets have written about, many beauties have craved for.

Be it Indians of Americas or Asia, the natives of Africa or Australia, Chinese or Mayans, tribes -- ancient or contemporary --, all have depended upon insects for countless products. In nature too, most of the flowering plants need insects for pollination, and hence survival of their species and most ecosystems. The book provides a delightful journey into the historical, economic and cultural influences and transitions that have guided the rearing of silkworms for obtaining expensive clothing (successfully in China, less so in US), cochineals for scarlet red dye (big profits were made by the Spanish at the cost of South Americans), crickets for producing music (in China and Japan), bees for wax and honey (everywhere on earth), fireflies and jewel beetles as decorations (in India and South East Asia), termite chutney (in Africa), honeydew from ants (in Americas) and maggots of blow flies for cleaning festering wounds (sometimes works better than all antibiotics). The author writes with an enthusiasm and erudition that comes after a lifelong passionate pursuit of topics in etymology. The author writes with an inimitable joy and clarity that every every science writer must adopt and emulate, and if we do so, I am sure more readers will flock to the scientific literature.

Read and own this treasure trove for its fascinating chapters, informative illustrations, rich mixture of folklore, myths and current science, quotes from many texts, times and authors (yes, Pliny makes an appearance as does Mark Twain) and highly quotable information (be it sex habits of beetles, synchronous flashing of fireflies in South-East Asia, profits made in rearing bees, inventions and discoveries including paper making and degradable sutures attributed to watching insects). Highly recommended reading for everyone remotely interested in the world around us and in the science and study of insects.

No comments: