There is an increasing number of popular books on insects, and by promoting entomology to a wider audience we are the better for them. With 1,600 colour photographs gracing the pages of this work, it might be perceived at first glance as a coffee-table book. Such a perception would be wrong, even if this intelligently constructed volume will surely have wide appeal. For the authors have managed to combine a sweep of the scientific literature on the insects of southern African with numerous personal observations, offering the reader a perspective on the exceptional insect biology of this notably diverse region of the planet. Importantly, the photographs have been accumulated to illustrate the text, not the other way around.
The book is structured around the major biomes of southern Africa, each biome benefitting from a separate chapter highlighting carefully chosen species of insect. Selections have been made to exemplify the role of insects as ecosystem engineers, especially termites, or simply to celebrate their wondrous and absorbing lifestyles. This work, then, is about insect natural history. It has been written by knowledgeable authors who also express an abiding love of the landscapes, habitats and vegetation in and on which their insect subjects live. Clarke Scholtz, Emeritus Professor of Entomology at the University of Pretoria, whilst specialising in beetles, has a wide knowledge of the insect fauna of southern Africa, and has spent much time in the field observing and researching. His coauthors, enny Scholtz, a conservationist of many years with a special interest in insects, and Hennie de Klerk, a metallurgist turned insect photographer who provided nearly all the illustrations, form collectively an ideal team to have produced this book.
What makes the book special is that its natural history flavour is underpinned by a review of numerous scientific publications – close to 300 references are listed, although the references are, perhaps unfortunately, not provided with a link in the text. By taking an explicitly narrative approach, the text is rendered accessible to a wide readership with the flow being enhanced by separating the more detailed explanations into boxes. While the content is about the insects of southern Africa, the life histories, behaviour, habits and environmental impact of these organisms will be recognised broadly in whatever part of the globe one inhabits. Entomologists will appreciate the diversity of insect biology that is described, and the book should appeal to those with a general interest in natural history and keen to learn about the habits of the most species-rich group of animals on the planet. Students will benefit by gaining access to a rich mine of entomology at such an attractive price and illustrated by so many colour photographs.
A summary of the main biomes of southern Africa precedes an introductory chapter (1), which provides a 43-page review of basic insect biology, covering structure, classification, some fundamentals of physiology, growth and development and the ecological roles of insects. Each of the subsequent chapters (2-14) covers one of the nine biomes or four habitats, featuring carefully selected examples of insects that have a notable impact on the ecology of the region or illustrate some of their fascinating behaviour. An appendix gives a summary of each of the insect orders represented in southern Africa (and that is nearly all of them), following which the many references are listed before a glossary and an index complete the volume.
Readers will gain a feel for the spectacular and attractive biomes with which southern Africa is blessed – the richly biodiverse Fynbos, extensive Savanna, Grassland, and Nama-Karoo, remnants of Afromontane Forest, the semi-desert Succulent Karoo, which includes Namaqualand with its springtime carpet of flowers, Desert (mostly in Namibia and with many endemics), the ancient vegetation type of the Albany Thicket, and the Indian Ocean Tropical Belt. Given the diversity of the biomes, it is unsurprising that the insect fauna is so rich. The authors have added chapters on insects of freshwater habitats, caves, the coastal zone, and the ever-expanding urban environment.
The chapter on the Succulent Karoo biome will serve to give an idea of the rich seam of biology in this book.A general and pithy description of the biome leads into a section on nutrient recyclers, namely harvester termites and their ecological impact. There follows a piece describing the pollination activities of lacewings, monkey beetles, bee flies, and pollen wasps. Boxes highlight soil improvement by the termite Microhodotermes viator, the function of the extended hindwings of nemopterine lacewings, flowers pollinated by monkey beetles, the possible use of flower spots in regulating body temperature in Megapalpus bee flies and bonding material used in the construction of nests by pollen wasps. The rest of this chapter is written in the same vein, and includes sections on herbivores, detritivores, and predators. In all of these, the narrative text benefits similarly from boxes highlighting special topics, with text and boxes being richly illustrated.
In summary, this volume celebrates insect natural history – form, function, habits and ecological impact. It is based on a blend of the authors’ own field experience with an invaluable review of the scientific literature. Its regional focus should by no means limit its appeal to southern Africa – rather, the highly biodiverse subcontinent allows such broad coverage of insect biology that will gel with all of us interested in insects.