Dr. Fred Bortz

Millions of Monarchs Bunches of Beetles How Bugs Find Strength in Numbers

by Gilbert Waldbauer

(Harvard University Press, 2000, $24.95 hardcover, 272 pages, also available in paperback)


Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz

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If you judge a book by its cover, this one will give you fits. Its title suggests an homage to Dr. Suess, but its publisher, Harvard University Press, carries the imprimatur of scholarship. What's going on here?

The answer is a delightful and informative romp with retired University of Illinois Professor Gilbert Waldbauer through his favorite bug-hunting venues. Along the way, you will discover that Waldbauer has never outgrown his childlike enthusiasm for discovery, hence the title, nor his seriousness about good science, hence the publisher.

Linking these two facets are the author's appreciation for enticing stories that he has accumulated over a professional lifetime. He skillfully weaves eager curiosity, clear science, and captivating tales to produce a compact book that is certain to please even the most casual observer of the world of small creatures with other than four extremities that creep, crawl, fly, or burrow all around us.

The book delivers more than pleasurable reading. It has both a scientific theme and an ecological one. It describes the wide variety of species survival strategies and the often unexpected impact that human activity has on the web of life on Earth.

Scientists have long recognized that in some species, individuals improve the likelihood that their genes will survive by through so-called kin selection. Their behaviors improve the opportunities for reproduction of close relatives if not themselves.

Waldbauer argues in favor of the more controversial notion of group selection, in which unrelated individuals band together for mutually enhanced opportunities to survive. Groups provide defenses against parasites and predators. They control or create the microclimates necessary for surviving. They make possible or vastly improve the opportunity to capture or subdue food. They make finding a mate more likely.

The book's ecological message is delivered much more subtly, but it is unmistakable. In a number of stories, we discover interesting insect adaptations that have arisen a result of interactions with human agriculture. In other cases, the result of human technology is extinction.

Though we may not miss the Rocky Mountain Locusts, which swarmed in clouds of tens of billions of individuals in the late nineteenth century, the same cannot be said of other creatures whose place in the web of life is of clearer value. Like a canary in a coal mine, these provide early warning of impending danger. "The migration and the winter gathering of monarchs are among the most spectacular of all natural phenomena, unique in the insect world," Waldbauer writes. Yet their winter gathering places are being destroyed by illegal logging. "The Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources has recognized the monarch migration as an endangered biological phenomenon and has designated it as the first priority in their effort to conserve the butterflies of the world."

Could bugs' numbers be merely an illusion of strength, and could ours?

Ph.D. physicist and children's author Fred Bortz has never outgrown his childlike enthusiasm for discovery nor his seriousness about good science. He invites young readers, their parents, and their teachers to explore his buzzing-with-information website at www.fredbortz.com.