________________ CM . . . . Volume XIII Number 5 . . . .October 27, 2006


Insects: Their Natural History and Diversity: With a Photographic Guide to Insects of Eastern North America.

Stephen A. Marshall.
Richmond Hill, ON: Firefly Books, 2006.
718 pp., cloth, $95.00.
ISBN 1-55297-900-8.

Subject Headings:
Insects-North America-Identification.
Insects-East (U.S.).
Insects-Canada, Eastern.

Grades 10 and up / Ages 15 and up.

Review by Barbara McMillan.

***1/2 /4



We live in a world of insects. They are our continual and closest neighbors, so much a part of day-to-day life that most of us hardly take notice of them, unless they are particularly loud or obnoxious, or they stand accused of robbery or assault. It’s easy to forget that human beings form a tiny two-legged minority in an overwhelmingly six-legged world (p. 10).


So begins “An Overview of Six-legged Life” in the preface to Stephen Marshall’s fascinating book. If fascinating isn’t a word you tend to use in conversations about canker worms, wasps, mosquitoes, elm bark beetles, fleas, aphids, or any other arthropod with a head, thorax, and abdomen, Marshall is determined to change your way of thinking. He accomplished this with information about members of the 33 insect orders that is clear and in places absolutely riveting. This biological and ecological knowledge is enhanced by more than 4000 photographs that he has taken of insects in their natural habitats.

     Marshall is an entomologist, a past president of the Entomological Society of Canada, and a discoverer of a new sub-family, several genera, and hundreds of species of insects. He also happens to be a professor at the University of Guelph and has based this 718-page book on material that he put together for a third-year entomology course titled, “The Natural History of Insects” (p. 7). All of this helps to explain why Insects: Their Natural History and Diversity contains the best answer to the question, “What is an insect?” that I have ever read, as the following excerpt from the introduction illustrates. Marshall has used two photographic illustrations and a cutaway diagram of a grasshopper to describe the parts of the insect head including the basic mouthparts. He continues with this description of the thorax:

The second of the insect’s three body sections is the thorax, which is usually a big muscle-packed box made up of three segments, each with appendages that have become specialized for locomotion. The thorax is the insect’s transportation center, almost always bearing three pairs of legs and usually with two pairs of wings. Insects with wings make up not only the majority of the class Insects, they make up the majority of [bold]all[end bold] animals (p. 15).

     The introduction ends with a diagram of the insect family tree, and this evolutionary tree organizes the first 12 chapters. Marshall begins with the wingless insects (springtails, diplurans, and bristletails), moves on to the “old-winged” insects (mayflies, dragonflies, and damselflies) and continues with the winged insects. This latter category includes everything from fresh water dwelling stoneflies (Chapter 3), to the cockroaches, termites, walking sticks, mantids, and earwigs (Chapter 4), grasshoppers, crickets and katydids (Chapter 5), true bugs (Chapter 6), butterflies and moths (Chapter 7), caddisflies (Chapter 8), lacewings, antlions, and fishflies (Chapter 9), beetles (Chapter 10), flies, scorpionflies, and fleas (Chapter 11), and sawflies, wasps, bees, and ants (Chapter 12). The descriptive text ends with a chapter devoted to non-insect arthropods (millipedes, centipedes, crayfish, woodlice, spiders, mites, scorpions, ticks, and harvestmen) and a chapter titled, “Observing, Collecting and Photographing Insects.” This is followed with a 52-page picture key to the insects, chapter-by chapter references, and two indices. The first of these is a 21-page index of the photographs, which is followed by a 23-page general index.

      The first 12 chapters vary in length as a consequence of the number of families and species included in the insect order or orders represented. While Marshall uses four pages of text and four partial pages of photographic images to present 12 families of wingless insects, the true flies of the order Diptera are described and portrayed on 136 pages. Each chapter is easily identifiable by the coloured border that runs along the top of the pages that illustrate the insects described in the preceding borderless text.

      Even though I have indicated that Insects is appropriate for a readership at grade 10 and up, the volume’s value to younger children should not be overlooked. For instance, although children in Grade 2 who are studying animal life cycles in science will not be able to read each word in the text and make sense of all of the ideas and concepts, the photographs taken in the field are filled with information that is within their reach. A teacher, parent, reading-buddy, or literate volunteer will be able to share excepts from the text that make an understanding of a particular insect family or order even more interesting than the photographs alone. Examples of such passages abound as the following examples suggest: North American soil may have as many as tens of thousands to millions of springtails per square meter (p. 20); pale burrowing mayflies emerge, mate, lay eggs and die during a single night (p. 30); dragonflies have tiny antennae, a giant pair of eyes, the ability to rotate their head almost 360 degrees, and modified legs that form a spiny basket under the head that is used to capture mosquitoes and black flies while flying (p. 31); a single aphid could produce 600 billion offspring in one growing season (p. 105); and the eggs and larva of fireflies glow (p. 269). When students in Grade 6 have learned to use and create dichotomous keys, the picture keys on pages 615-667 would be wonderful to have available as an example of a user-friendly key that enables one to identity an eastern North American specimen to the level of family. As far as adult readers are concerned, Marshall’s Insects is an invaluable resource for those who want to know more about the biology and behaviour of a particular insect and for those interested in biodiversity, insect classification, and the impact of insects on commerce and human health.

Highly Recommended.

Barbara McMillan is a professor of early and middle years science education in the Faculty of Education, the University of Manitoba.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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