A wasp admirer makes a delightful case for their importance.



An appealing study of the almost universally despised “gangsters of the insect world.”

“The wasp has long been a powerful metaphor for an evil, devious character who does no good,” writes British entomologist and behavioral ecologist Sumner. Fascinated by wasps since childhood, the author points out that wasps are voracious predators who eat a wide range of insects, including agricultural pests. In some parts of the world, they are farmed on a factory scale and released into fields to destroy caterpillars and other pests. Without them, we would need to use more toxic insecticides. “Without the services of wasps as pest controllers, pollinators, seed-dispersers and decomposers, our forests, grasslands, parks, gardens, deserts, highlands, moorlands and heathlands would not support planetary health in the way they currently (just about) do,” writes the author. Wasps make up over 80% of the order Hymenoptera, which includes bees and ants. There are around 150,000 described species of Hymenoptera, but perhaps 10 times more yet to be described, making them the most numerous insect order, and their communities rival those of ants and humans in complexity, division of labor, and pugnacity. Almost all wasps are solitary, tiny parasitoids, which lay their eggs on or inside other insects, not excluding other wasps. When they hatch, the larvae eat the living host as they grow. Sumner excels in describing historical naturalists (“wasp whisperers”), and she offers an imaginative chapter on Aristotle, who shared her unfashionable fascination and showed impressive imagination and endurance while crawling around to learn the secrets of the often miniscule insects. Sumner devotes considerable attention to the relevant research about the social structure of wasp communities, the details (and mathematics) of their impressive altruism, and descriptions of their evolution in light of modern genetic analysis. A nature documentary would likely pass over these complexities, but they are accessible in Sumner’s skillful hands.

A wasp admirer makes a delightful case for their importance.

Pub Date: July 12, 2022

ISBN: 978-0-06-302992-7

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: April 19, 2022

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2022

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A lucid (in the sky with diamonds) look at the hows, whys, and occasional demerits of altering one’s mind.

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Building on his lysergically drenched book How to Change Your Mind (2018), Pollan looks at three plant-based drugs and the mental effects they can produce.

The disastrous war on drugs began under Nixon to control two classes of perceived enemies: anti-war protestors and Black citizens. That cynical effort, writes the author, drives home the point that “societies condone the mind-changing drugs that help uphold society’s rule and ban the ones that are seen to undermine it.” One such drug is opium, for which Pollan daringly offers a recipe for home gardeners to make a tea laced with the stuff, producing “a radical and by no means unpleasant sense of passivity.” You can’t overthrow a government when so chilled out, and the real crisis is the manufacture of synthetic opioids, which the author roundly condemns. Pollan delivers a compelling backstory: This section dates to 1997, but he had to leave portions out of the original publication to keep the Drug Enforcement Administration from his door. Caffeine is legal, but it has stronger effects than opium, as the author learned when he tried to quit: “I came to see how integral caffeine is to the daily work of knitting ourselves back together after the fraying of consciousness during sleep.” Still, back in the day, the introduction of caffeine to the marketplace tempered the massive amounts of alcohol people were drinking even though a cup of coffee at noon will keep banging on your brain at midnight. As for the cactus species that “is busy transforming sunlight into mescaline right in my front yard”? Anyone can grow it, it seems, but not everyone will enjoy effects that, in one Pollan experiment, “felt like a kind of madness.” To his credit, the author also wrestles with issues of cultural appropriation, since in some places it’s now easier for a suburbanite to grow San Pedro cacti than for a Native American to use it ceremonially.

A lucid (in the sky with diamonds) look at the hows, whys, and occasional demerits of altering one’s mind.

Pub Date: July 6, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-593-29690-5

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: April 14, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2021

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A straightforward, carefully detailed presentation of how ``fruit comes from flowers,'' from winter's snow-covered buds through pollination and growth to ripening and harvest. Like the text, the illustrations are admirably clear and attractive, including the larger-than-life depiction of the parts of the flower at different stages. An excellent contribution to the solidly useful ``Let's-Read-and-Find-Out-Science'' series. (Nonfiction/Picture book. 4-9)

Pub Date: Jan. 30, 1992

ISBN: 0-06-020055-3

Page Count: 32

Publisher: HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 1991

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