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Wicked Bugs chronicles bites, stings, disease and other insect infractions that changed the world

As if Halloween is not scary enough, author Amy Stewart gives us a few million more reasons.

Stewart’s Wicked Bugs: The Louse That Conquered Napoleon’s Army & Other Diabolical Insects (2011 Algonquin Books, $18.95 hardbound) introduces us to some of the scariest multi-legged creatures on earth.

At least 1 million species of insects have been identified worldwide with a population of about 10 quintillion (1 followed by 18 zeros), or roughly 200 million for each of one us, she said.

Stewart, who also wrote the best-seller Wicked Plants: The Weed That Killed Lincoln’s Mother & Other Botanical Atrocities, applies a broad definition to wicked bugs.

Painful and destructive insects, crop destroyers and those that carry diseases make the list, including what she calls the Gardener’s Dirty Dozen: aphids, whitefly, slugs and snails, cutworm, earwig, Japanese beetle, cucumber beetle, tomato hornworm, flea beetle, coddling moth, scale and tent caterpillar.

“They may not change the course of civilization. They might not spread the plague or send villagers fleeing for the hills. And they’ve probably never been implicated in a murder — although they do inspire murderous rages. These are just some of the pests that drive gardeners mad,” she writes.

Of course, more devastating bugs did alter civilization, including the oriental rat flea, which brought on the plague, or the Black Death of the Middle Ages, which killed one-third to one-half of Europe’s population.

The book also describes various bug-related phobias. Entomophobia is fear of insects, aniphobia is fear of bees and scoleciphobi is fear of parasitic worms.

One beautiful aspect of the book is Briony Morrow-Cribbs intricate illustrations, which practically crawl off the page.

The book is not meant to be a field guide or prescription for various bites and stings. Rather, it’s a fascinating look at a world we seldom notice.

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