Written by a scientist, Buzz, Sting, Bite: Why We Need Insects compiles a good collection of tales about insects and gives multiple examples of their importance, from pollinating our food to processing organic debris back into soil. Because the author lives in Norway we get occasional glimpses at a different culture, as when she informs us that deer flies swarm “at the height of the mushroom season” but she does not hesitate to jump to other locales, as when she tells us that the British importers of cows to Australia, in the late 18th century, forgot to also import the beetles that could dispose of their dung.
Down from the Mountain: The Life and Death of a Grizzly Bear retraces the life of a grizzly sow and her two cubs, as they are drawn to a valley filled with apples and corn, and where the mother will eventually be shot, orphaning the cubs. The best parts of the book describe the life of wild animals, and the beautiful setting of the Montana valley where they live. The author’s aim is to illustrate how farming ultimately puts animals at risk, and indeed he spends a big chunk of the book describing his efforts to build an electric fence to protect a farmer’s corn field. His recommendations, that we stop farming in grizzly territory, seem both logical and impractical.
Following Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, De Waal tackles emotions in Mama’s Last Hug: Animal and Human Emotions. We see a capuchin monkey losing it when his friend gets a delicious grape instead of the cucumber he receives for the same task, smiling primates (including humans) trying to make amends, chimps who recognize other chimps’ behinds (but only for chimps they know), bully alpha male apes who get killed by their fed-up troops, and orphan bonobos who can’t quite self-soothe. The author’s deft and empathic observations make it very clear that, of course, animals have emotions, and not too different from ours.
Written by a biologist, Buzz: The Nature and Necessity of Bees starts with arthropod fear (clearly not a problem for the author!) and covers how wasps became vegetarian, hence bees, the vast differences between honeybees and wild bees, and how bees of both types are used in agriculture, with intriguing descriptions of hand-pollination of data palms and attempts to attract more local bees for California almond trees. But the sweetest moments may be his descriptions of looking for bees, whether at home or at a “bee camp” on the US/Mexico border.
I can’t say that I was fascinated by The Fair Chase: The Epic Story of Hunting in America, as hunting is not an activity that I have ever practiced, or want to practice. The author does a good (albeit overly lengthy to my taste) job of describing the evolution of hunting in America from a free-for-all, devastating exercise, to the concept of fair chase, in which animals are not simply massacred, and eventually to conservation as hunters realize that they need to preserve some habitat for their prey.
But the book also contains many detours into: diorama making, the extermination of Native Americans (very much expedited, if not caused, by hunting buffalo), dinosaur fossil discoveries, massacres of birds to provide feathers for women’s hats, President Roosevelt in Africa, and, of course, the NRA. I finished the book hoping for a Cliff Notes version.
If you think of termites as disgusting insects that eat your house, Underbug: An Obsessive Tale of Termites and Technology may not be your idea of a fun read — but it turns out that termites have fascinating society structures and perform critical ecological services by moving moisture around in their enormous mounds. The book is structured as a series of stories, interactions with various termite-studying scientists over the course of years or even decades, so it’s at the same time easy to read and also quite discursive, with lavish descriptions of the scientists’ private lives and even other project the author-journalist worked on, unrelated to termites. I did not love that. But I learned a lot about termites, who after all know how to create energy from wood, and that’s very cool!
Written by a paleontologist, Spying on Whales: The Past, Present, and Future of Earth’s Most Awesome Creatures takes us from Chile to North Carolina, from Iceland to the Antarctic, to look at bones, at live whales, and even whales in the process of being rendered into meat (yes, Iceland still hunts whales). The author manages to share his love for whales and the mysteries of their size and organs very effectively, and he also does a great job of showing how very difficult it is to study animals that are simply huge (hence the visit to the Iceland rendering plant: they actually own cranes and other devices that make it possible to maneuver their enormous bodies!)