Who is this book for? Every literate English-speaking person on the planet (and with luck it will get translated) over the age of 12, and younger people whose parents don’t mind their offspring’s exposure to the odd naughty word or innuendo. Many, perhaps the majority, of Antenna readers will find little that they didn’t already know, but that’s not to say that the book isn’t for us, too, for it’s an inspiring summary of the incredible array of adaptations that insects have evolved, and of their fundamental importance to our wellbeing and very survival, whilst recognising that some pose huge dangers to humans and need managing in ways that don’t ultimately make matters worse. And you will, for sure, pick up a few new fascinating factoids and figures to flabbergast your friends. It’s useful for answering that question ‘can you recommend a book to help convince non-specialists of the importance of insects?’. Other such books exist, but many focus on single taxa. George’s wide knowledge of the insect world, gleaned through his career as a researcher, museum curator and broadcaster, combined with his earthy, amusing writing style and anecdotes, create the book’s USP.
The first six chapters take us through key aspects of insect life: their evolutionary history (‘The Creatures from the Blue Lagoon’); their extraordinary adaptations (‘Brilliant Bodies’) ; their interactions with other life-forms (‘How to Build a Pyramid)’; their interactions with themselves in terms of sex (‘Close Encounters and Curious Couplings’), parasitisation and predation (‘The Body-Snatchers’) and their role as decomposers (‘The Afterlife’). Chapter 7 (‘What Have Insects Ever Done for Us’) reminds us of the many reasons they are vital to humankind, and the final chapter (‘Repairing a World of Wounds’) is a call to arms in their support.
An unusual feature of the book is that most (curiously, all but one) of the chapters includes wise words from well-known (to Antenna readers, at least) entomologists – and one natural history broadcaster well-known to the whole world. I was just thinking to myself “all the usual suspects” when up popped actress Alison Steadman, who expounds the importance of guiding youngsters to discover nature. It must have been difficult to choose who to ask. It must also have been difficult to select the various entomological highlights to feature and how to order them. George has chosen well and the segues do not feel contrived.
On the front cover are the words “George McGavin is a rarity”, attributed to Sir David Attenborough. I shared a lab with George while we worked on our PhD projects at the Natural History Museum, and I know exactly what Sir David means. Read the book, and you will at least be partly in the know!