Throughout the Middle Ages, enormously popular bestiaries presented people with descriptions of rare and unusual animals, typically paired with a moral or religious lesson. The real and the imaginary blended seamlessly in these books – at the time, the existence of a rhinoceros was as credible as a unicorn or dragon. Although audiences now scoff at the impossibility of mythological beasts, there remains an extraordinary willingness to suspend skepticism and believe wild stories about nature, particularly about insects and their relatives in the Phylum Arthropoda.
In The Earwig's Tail entomologist May Berenbaum and illustrator Jay Hosler draw on the powerful cultural symbols of these antiquated books to create a beautiful and witty bestiary of the insect world. Berenbaum's compendium of tales is an alphabetical tour of modern myths that humorously illuminates aerodynamically unsound bees, ear-boring earwigs, and libido-enhancing Spanish flies. She tracks down the germ of scientific truth that inspires each insect urban legend and shares some wild biological lessons, which, because of the amazing nature of the insect world, can be more fantastic than even the mythic misperceptions.
Preface: The Twenty-First-Century Insectiary
- The Aerodynamically Unsound Bumble Bee
- The Brain-Boring Earwig
- The California Tongue Cockroach
- The Domesticated Crab Louse
- The Extinction-Prevention Bee
- The Filter-Lens Fly
- The Genetically Modified Frankenbug
- The Headless Cockroach
- The Iraqi Camel Spider
- The Jumping Face Bug
- The Kissing Bug
- The “Locust”
- The Mate-Eating Mantis
- The Nuclear Cockroach
- The Olympian Flea
- The Prognosticating Woollyworm
- The Queen Bee
- The Right-Handed Ant
- The Sex-Enhancing Spanishfly
- The Toilet Spider
- The Unslakable Mosquito
- The Venomous Daddylonglegs
- The Wing-Flapping Chaos Butterfly
- The X-ray-Induced Giant Insect
- The Yogurt Beetle
- The Zapper Bug
May R. Berenbaum is Professor and Head, Department of Entomology, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
"The Earwig's Tail is a compelling exploration of arthropod-related urban legends. Berenbaum explores the stories' origins – occasionally scientific but more often not – from the etymological issues of how the earwigs got their name through to the plausibility of cockroaches growing inside one's tongue. It is a fascinating collection of short, sharp chapters, each starting with a common myth that Berenbaum investigates through the popular media and more reputable scientific research. She looks for the origin of the legends, and assesses the scientific credibility behind the claims. Written in an entertaining and engaging style, this is a light-hearted and enjoyable critique of some of the public perceptions and misconceptions surrounding our six-legged friends [...] Do drunk ants really always fall down on their left sides? Is it true that the cockroach would be the only organism to survive a nuclear holocaust? Can a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil really cause a tornado in Texas? If you have ever wondered about any of these issues, or received a warning about an insect and questioned its veracity, Berenbaum has the answers. She leaves the reader with some interesting questions, some entertaining anecdotes, and some possibilities that even an entomologist might not want to consider. A must-read for the entomologist, the entomophobic and anyone who has ever wondered whether mutant insects with six-foot wingspans could take over the Earth."
– Michelle Harvey, Times Higher Education
"Myth and misinformation about insects abound, and entomologist May Berenbaum is here to set us straight. In The Earwig's Tail she reveals that a bumblebee's flight doesn't defy physics, cockroaches aren't immune to radiation, and earwigs, despite their name, don't inhabit human ears. Fair enough – but Berenbaum doesn't simply kill untruths dead like a can of Raid. She uses these topics as jumping-off points for enlightening discussions about the insect world, which is so vast and incredible that it requires no exaggeration."
– Utne Reader
"[The Earwig's Tail] debunks stories about spiders laying their eggs in people's mouths or the survival of the human race being dependent on the survival of bees [...] In its way this book is a perfect example of its kind: Berenbaum has an easy, witty style, but writing for fellow scientists keeps her from being annoyingly facetious."
– Owen Richardson, The Age
"[Berenbaum's] chatty and highly readable new book, The Earwig's Tail: A Modern Bestiary of Multi-legged Legends, unites her scholarship with her interest in the fantasies insects inspire in humans. It's a modern equivalent of the bestiaries that excited medieval readers with accounts of the world's animals, among which the authors frequently included unicorns and mermaids. Berenbaum also includes many an unfounded myth but crisply refutes delusions with scientific truth."
– Robert Fulford, The National Post
"Throughout The Earwig's Tail, Berenbaum squashes urban myths about bugs, explaining along the way why you should not wear your dog's flea and tick collar even if you have fleas, as she once did. For 20 years she has taught an entomology course called 'Insects and people,' and this book provides a wry look at their interactions. It is scientifically accurate, studded with Latin names and journal references, and consistently funny."
– Jonathan Beard, New Scientist
"Clever and humorous, this is a book for the layperson that even scientists will enjoy reading."
– J. M. Gonzalez, Choice