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The Earwig's Tail: A Modern Bestiary of Multi-legged Legends.

The Earwig's Tail: A Modern Bestiary of Multi-legged Legends. May R. Berenbaum. 2009. Harvard University Press (ISBN 9780674035409). 194 pages. Hardcover. $23.95.

The Earwig's Tail is a collection of stories meant to clarify the urban legends of the insect world. It seems there is an incredible amount of tall tales concerning the "little creatures" in our lives. Berenbaum's mission is to track down the kernel of truth in these insect tales--and admittedly, yes, there usually is a speck of truth that gets dangerously out of control and becomes an urban legend. This arthropod book is mostly devoted to the insect, but the occasional arachnid crawls into the book as well.

Why do people believe all the "bad" about insects? Why do these tales continue to spread? Insects, all in all, do not have the best reputation with humans. Humans tend to prefer cute, cuddly, furry mammals to any other group of living organisms. There certainly isn't anything cute or cuddly about a housefly, a corn earworm, a cockroach, or a praying mantis. So I suppose that is it: it is easy to believe the worst of something that is not cute and cuddly.

The first chapter is devoted to none other than the bumblebee. Bumblebees, as the urban legend goes, should not be able to fly. If you read the various e-mails out there, you will find that "physicists agree" that bees are aerodynamically unsound. Of course, we know that couldn't be true, because every one of us has witnessed a bumblebee flying. Unfortunately, the scientist (by the way, not a physicist) who first issued this declaration made a few faulty assumptions that led to this urban legend--and somehow the accurate information never makes it into the e-mails that everyone wants to circulate.

The earwig of the book's title is claimed to have burrowed into many ears, according to urban legends. Berenbaum found only one reference (in 10 centuries) to an earwig being found in an ear canal. Actually, the most common object found in ears was a cockroach, according to Johns Hopkins. Now that is a bit freaky. I'd much prefer the earwig to a cockroach in my ear any day!

Berenbaum doesn't forget the filmmaker's favorite--the insects' many-faceted compound eyes. Think of the countless movies that show the insects' supposed compound-vision viewpoint. The movies I'm recalling seem to assume that a creature with a compound eye has better vision and perhaps multiple visual fields. While no one is certain, it appears that the image produced is more like a black-and-white newspaper picture. Although their vision is likely not what the moviemakers show, insects are very good at detecting motion.

My daughter, a junior high scientist, thought the chapter on the Iraqi Camel Spider was really surprising. The legend tells us there are spiders 3 feet long (or more) that travel at 25 mph, scream as they run, and inject a powerful anesthetic before they start eating our American soldiers in the desert. As it turns out, the creature described does belong to the arachnids, but it is not technically a spider. They are fast (10 mph) for an eight-legged creature, but they don't eat soldiers in the Iraqi desert. So much for that urban legend.

In all, there are 26 different stories, including the four mentioned above as well as crab louse, jumping face bug, kissing bug, Olympian flea, and toilet spiders to mention just a few, not to exclude the sex-enhancing Spanish fly. The book is a fast and easy read and could be used in the junior high setting through the college level. A chapter could easily be read as an attention-grabber at the beginning of the class in a unit covering the phylum Arthropoda at any level. These stories would certainly get my attention.

DOI: 10.1525/abt.2010.72.9.13

Kay M. Pedretti

College Lab Specialist

Winona State University,

Biology Department

Winona, Minnesota

kpedretti@winona.edu
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Author:Pedretti, Kay M.
Publication:The American Biology Teacher
Article Type:Book review
Date:Nov 1, 2010
Words:654
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