Author Amy Stewart on the lifestyles of the gross and deadly
You’re strolling barefoot down the beach when—what the?—you step on a furry mass that sends lightening bolts of pain shooting through your body. You look down to discover the culprit: a roiling blob of fuzzy caterpillars. That doesn’t seem so bad, and after the pain subsides, you decide not to visit a doctor. You return home, but huge bruises begin to appear on your body. Instead of getting smaller, they get bigger. By the time you get to a hospital and doctors realize you’ve been stung by a certain type of poisonous Brazilian caterpillar―and order the special antivenin from South America―your kidneys shut down and your blood won’t clot. Later that day, you die.
Illustration from Wicked Bugs
This is just one of more than 100 horror stories in Amy Stewart’s book Wicked Bugs. Some make you shudder. Others make you gag. All of them are fascinating vignettes of our battles with the small creatures that vastly outnumber us on Earth. The bug tome is her 2011 follow-up to Wicked Plants (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2009), and both are full of engaging storytelling.
The Alibi spoke to Stewart by phone, and she explained the books are not just about their titular topics. “In some ways they’re books that are more about people and poisons,” she says. “It’s just whether those poisons are in a bug-shaped package or a plant-shaped package.”
Wicked Bugs is not intended to be a field guide, but several references are listed. And Stewart didn’t personally meet all the little monsters, she says, because encountering a bug wasn’t going to give her a good story. “What I was doing was really telling stories about people who have encountered the bugs,” Stewart says, “so it was more important to me that I get the history and the people.” For the record, Stewart uses the word “bug” very loosely, including things like spiders, worms and ants―creatures that entomologists do not consider bugs. For her purposes, all “creepy crawlies” fall under into the same group.
Horrible is a good way to describe the tongue-eating louse, a water bug that feasts on the tongues of a living host fish and then sticks around, drinking blood from the stub and functioning as a replacement tongue.
In Wicked Bugs, the subjects are branded with one of five adjectives: painful, horrible, dangerous, destructive or deadly. The Brazilian wandering spider is painful, with a bite causing excruciating sensations and paralysis. Horrible is a good way to describe the tongue-eating louse, a water bug that feasts on the tongues of a living host fish and then sticks around, drinking blood from the stub and functioning as a replacement tongue. Stewart is quick to name what she thinks are the grossest bugs.
“I say ‘tapeworms’ and ‘maggots’ in front of an audience and the whole audience grosses out,” she says. “They don’t want to hear the stories. They can’t handle it. I find them fascinating, but there are very few people who can stand hearing anything about them.” Those who don’t want to read anything about them should stop now.
Illustration from Wicked Bugs
Stewart says the pork tapeworm is common, and that you don’t have to eat bacon to get it. People who are infected “shed” hundreds of tapeworm eggs when they use the bathroom, which is why hand washing―especially for restaurant employees―is crucial. You may add “worrying about tapeworms in restaurants” to your ever-growing list of neuroses.
One tale in Wicked Bugs recounts a woman undergoing surgery for a large brain tumor. Upon opening her skull, the surgeon found not a tumor but a huge tapeworm. Ingesting food contaminated with tapeworm eggs causes this kind of infestation―in the brain, liver or lungs, as opposed to the intestines.
Another gross bug at the forefront of peoples’ minds is the bedbug, which has had a resurgence over the past three years. Stewart says they are evolving but that’s not why they came back. “I mean the reason that they left after World War II and have come back recently,” she says, “is that we have actually stopped using such nasty chemicals all over our house.” Households would often have contracts with an exterminator who sprayed toxic chemicals throughout an entire dwelling, she says. For better or worse, now people use more targeted pesticides aimed at just the bug they’re trying to kill. “They tend to be much lower toxicity and are less harmful,” Stewart says. “It’s not going kill every living creature within a five mile radius of your house.”
You may add “worrying about tapeworms in restaurants” to your ever-growing list of neuroses.
This, combined with an increase in international travel, has made it easier for bedbugs to come back. Stewart doesn’t think we’ll be able to get rid of them entirely. She also notes that they never went away for people in other parts of the world. And perhaps they’re nothing to worry about.
Illustration from Wicked Bugs
“The thing is, they don’t transmit any sort of disease that we know of,” she says, “and I think we ought to put it in perspective with mosquitos. You don’t see them making headlines everyday, and yet they’re killing literally hundreds of millions of people around the world.” The deer tick is another worrisome bug to her. They spread Lyme disease, which has no effective treatment. “So you know,” she says, “I think we have a lot bigger problems. I’m not worried about bedbugs.”
One message Stewart would like readers to get from the book is to respect the power of nature. She also thinks people tend to be too afraid of bugs. “The fact is most bugs can’t hurt us at all but are really good for the environment.” When she finds a bug in her own home, she usually lets it be. Only when it’s harmful does she gently usher it outside. She says it was work to round up the bugs that are truly worthy of being terrified of for the book. “I think people ought to be a little more accurate about their phobias,” she says. Harmful encounters can be avoided with a little knowledge. And Wicked Bugs delivers the sting, whether it’s a deeper understanding of all the critters that go “zzzz” in the night or a good gross-out that you’re after.
Wicked Bugs: The Louse That Conquered Napoleon's Army & Other Diabolical Insects
(Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill •Hardcover • $18.95)