Reviewed by M. G. Leonard
It takes a daunting amount of knowledge, countless years of communicating, and the glimmer of genius to refine an inexhaustible and complex subject, such as the insect, into a readable, clear, engaging, concentrated and comprehensive short volume. This is precisely what Simon Leather has done in Insects – A Very Short Introduction.
The central argument of this book, that insects are worthy of study, understanding and enthusiasm, is one that most readers of this review have already subscribed to. However, the ambition of this introduction is to amplify the message, communicating it to the wider world. It is a cheerful ringmaster’s cry to come and see the weird and wonderful creatures in the Earth’s incredible circus of invertebrates. Once the reader has opened the book, Simon powerfully impresses upon them the importance of learning about our invertebrate friends: “Insects are the bedrock on which human civilisation rests; without them there would almost certainly be no humans.” In his preface he explains he is telling, “a story that conveys the wonder and awe that insects have inspired in me”, and a fabulous story it is.
In barely more than a hundred small pages the reader: travels though time, learning about the evolution and taxonomy of insects (one of the simplest most concise explanations I have ever read); considers behaviour, use of pheromones and reproduction; examines the way insects travel, flight, migration, and their search for food; visits their living quarters, habitats, relationships and social structures; takes a boat trip to see the aquatic insects; admires the ways in which insects avoid death and put on displays, using mimicry and camouflage; marvels at how insects cope with the challenge of weather, overwintering, and their innovative ways of responding to temperature and light; reviews the reputations of insects as good or bad, pests or pollinators, predators and parasites, underlining their essential role in the Earth’s ecosystem; and touches on the distressing fact that the planet’s populations of insects is in decline.
Insects – A Very Short Introduction is a powerful argument for the importance of understanding insects and the delight to be found in doing so, tackling the problem of cultural “insect blindness” and the idiocy of this when they “are part of the very fabric of existence.” As a lay person, who paddles at the edges of the insect science ocean, I found this book to be readable, interesting and, at times, surprising. Each paragraph begins with a summary sentence that any level of reader will comprehend, then expands with interesting examples, anecdotes, and studies, only employing scientific language where necessary, not exhaustively, and with humour. As someone who was lucky enough to have known him, it was lovely to hear Simon Leather’s voice through his words, and it made me smile to see his passion and specialism in aphids woven through the narrative.
Simon Leather is someone whom I admire, respect, and had the pleasure, for a short time, of calling a friend. When my debut children’s novel, Beetle Boy, was published in 2016, he invited me to speak at an entomology conference at Harper Adams University. I protested that I wasn’t a scientist and would be of little interest to attendees, but he argued that it was precisely because I was an enthusiast, communicating the wonder of Coleoptera to children, that he wanted me there. I went, taking my first steps into the entomological community and I’m so glad I did. Simon and I talked at length about insects in children’s literature — a subject he was incredibly knowledgeable and passionate about — and he made me feel like a welcome and useful addition to the community. He was the embodiment of positive outreach, a champion of the insect underdog, and his absence is a great loss. He turned me from being a children’s author, into an amateur entomologist, and for that I’ll always be grateful.