Fireflies, Honey, and Silk

Gilbert Waldbauer

University of California Press 2009
A book review by Danny Yee © 2010
Fireflies, Honey, and Silk is a potted survey of the ways in which humans use insects. Its ten thematic chapters span a huge range, but they emphasize a few key examples rather than trying to be comprehensive.

When it comes to aesthetic appreciation of insects, butterflies rank highly for Europeans but the Japanese have traditionally prized dragonflies and fireflies. Other topics touched on here include the amorous associations of fleas, diligent ants, weather forecasting, and fly fishing.

Silk gets a chapter to itself, though that also covers Pasteur's applications of germ theory to silkworm diseases and the use of insect pheromones in monitoring and controlling agricultural pests. A chapter on dyes touches on Polish cochineal, lac dye and Aleppo gall, but is mostly devoted to the cochineal scale insect of Mexico.

"Only impregnated females were used to make the dye. Before they could lay their eggs, they were carefully removed from the plant, one by one ... however enough females to produce sufficient offspring for the next harvest were left ... The harvested cochineal insects were then killed and dried by exposing them to the sun, which produced the finest dye, or by putting them in a heated room or an oven"

An ethnographic survey gives a feel for the diverse ways in which insects or insect parts have been used for jewelry, ornament and decoration. And the ways in which humans consume insects are just as varied, with the Western prejudice against eating insects a distinct anomaly.

A miscellaneous chapter covers the use of beeswax for candles, shellac for phonograph records (before vinyl), and sealing wax; there are digressions on honeyguides (birds which lead mammals to hives) and other animals that eat wax, and on dung beetles and scarabs. This leads to a chapter on paper and ink.

"The anomalous, tumorlike plant growths known as galls may be caused by viruses, bacteria, fungi, certain worms, or mites. But most are caused by insects ...
Boiling the Aleppo gall — or any oak gall — in water extracts tannin, the concentration of which is unusually high in this gall. Dissolving iron in acid produces salts of iron, such as the iron sulfate that is commonly mixed with a tannin solution to produce ink."

Honey from honey bees is one of the best-known and most important insect products, but Waldbauer also looks at lesser-known bees and wasps and at "honeypot" ants. A chapter on "cures and nostrums" covers the use of ant or other insect jaws to suture wounds, the use of maggots for wound debridement, and the medicinal use of honey, as well as some of the more bizarre insect remedies tried over the centuries.

"It was also believed that deafness could be cured by putting into the ear a pulverized earwig mixed with the urine of a hare."

In China and Japan there is a long tradition of using crickets as entertainers, for their singing; ants, silkworms and giant cockroaches have found a niche as pets in the West. Insects are also used in museums to strip specimens to skeletons (Waldbauer touches here on forensic entomology, which otherwise gets little coverage).

"In China, but not in Japan, cricket fights have been a widely popular entertainment since the Sung dynasty (960-1278 C.E.)."

Waldbauer is an emeritus professor of entomology, but there is not much in Fireflies, Honey and Silk about insects for their own sake: it is very much human-centred. An epilogue, however, touches on the broader role of insects, on their ecological significance as herbivores, carnivores, and prey.

Its attraction is primarily historical and anthropological rather than entomological, but Fireflies, Honey, and Silk is both entertaining and informative.

February 2010

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%T Fireflies, Honey, and Silk
%A Waldbauer, Gilbert
%I University of California Press
%D 2009
%O hardcover, references, index
%G ISBN-13 9780520258839
%P 233pp