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5 july 2016

J.B.S. Haldane famously said that God had "an inordinate fondness for beetles" (24), but I can't say I've always been of God's opinion. I was scared to death of beetles when I was a little kid. That's if I knew they were beetles. Ladybugs are beetles, but nobody told me that at the time, and some people even called them ladybirds, which made them seem like tiny First Ladies. I liked ladybirds. Every other beetle terrified me.

As Adam Dodd notes, following Haldane and many another naturalist, this means that I was frightened of a substantial portion of the species on Earth. In the last 70 years, says Dodd in his new Reaktion Animal book Beetle,

around 130,000 more beetle species have been described – an average of five a day, every day – and the number continues to climb. (101)
When you consider that 220,000 beetle species were known 70 years ago, that's a lot of beetle species.

Of course, most people run together beetles and bugs. I went to Wikipedia to look up the difference, only to find that a crucial explanatory link on the page about bugs went to information about beetles. I fixed the link but came away only partially enlightened. Dodd himself isn't very helpful on the taxonomic place of beetles within the insect world. But that's perhaps because beetles themselves are hugely diverse, and the scope of a small book doesn't allow for even introductory taxonomy.

Suffice to say that beetles have a pair of hard-shell wings that covers a pair of softer wings (ladybirds are a vivid example). They have pincers or horns at their business ends, though very few beetles bite humans, which my grandmother might have told me instead of just yelling at my cowardice. Beetles undergo complete metamorphosis, from egg to larva to pupa to imago. (Bugs don't.) So they have some things in common with other insects (like cockroaches on the one hand and moths on the other) but some qualities special to their kind. Or 350,000 kinds.

Dodd's Beetle is very well structured, with perfect transitions. He divides human history into large, general eras in terms of knowledge about beetles. From very early prehistory, humans have made images of beetles, revered them, drawn lessons from their lifestyles (sometimes inaccurate ones, such as the belief that beetles are all male and generate spontaneously). In the Renaissance and Enlightenment, beetle knowledge proliferated, particularly in the fields of collection and illustration. More than most creatures, beetles lend themselves to storing and sorting, rather like coins or stamps. They're pretty, they're small, and they come in series that you never seem to be able to complete. By the mid-19th-century, says Dodd, these collections (of specimens and images) had produced a great deal of lore, but somewhat impractical lore.

"It was not enough to merely account for and collect beetle species – things would need to be done with this knowledge" (109). Beetles had eaten human crops and food stores for millennia, and it seemed to many, 100 years ago, that the proliferation of understanding about beetles could be used to preserve that food from insect pests. Dodd covers the ensuing war on beetles, waged by humans wielding pesticides, predators, and parasites. And sometimes, humans and beetles were allies against other pests, as with the widespread recruitment of ladybirds to battle aphids.

Dodd treats the modern imperative for research to be "impactful" in wry terms. Often the wars on, or with, beetles have had unintended consequences. Problems arise out of the scale of our relation to beetles (and other tiny things generally). Small organisms evolve quickly and develop coping strategies, chemical or behavioral, that thwart the dream of a pest-free world. As part of the biota ourselves, we will eventually have to realize that we cannot subsist apart from the pestiferous portions (which are only pestiferous with reference to ourselves).

Early-modern naturalists were profoundly struck by the complexity of life on small scales. They loved beetles because the little guys are almost invisibly charismatic. (In a sense, that charisma is the flip side of the terror I experienced when young, in the presence of creatures a tiny fraction of my size.)

Adam Dodd helps us recover this outmoded sense of wonder. He ends his book with a discussion of the beetle in modern popular culture. He's drawn to some interesting and excessive manifestations: Ellen Terry's beetle-encrusted gown, Jan Fabre's beetle-based decorations for the Belgian royal palace. He notes the Japanese obsession with beetles, right down to the marketing of souvenir figurines of another Fabre, the famous French beetle collector Jean-Henri.

There isn't much beetle literature under discussion here, and there may not be much to discuss. When Dodd mentioned the practice (begun in the 18th century) of pinning beetle specimens, I was reminded of T.S. Eliot's J. Alfred Prufrock:

And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
No beetle is mentioned there, and any responsible collector would euthanize before pinning, but the action seems beetle-like (down to the reaction of spitting out a vile substance that characterizes some trapped beetles). There are more explicit beetle poems. A.A. Milne's "Forgiven" is about a pet beetle; Linda Pastan's "Deathwatch Beetle" is too, if on a sadder note, and Jody Gladding has a collection called Translations from Bark Beetle that attempts to render the traces of that creature into human language. Nah, these aren't very memorable. To be honest, I just Googled them. But one book that contains several beetle poems, and that I've read several times, is the Newbery Medal collection Joyful Noise by Paul Fleischman and Eric Beddows.

Dodd discusses at some length a 1912 film called The Cameraman's Revenge, a stop-motion, anthropomorphic, metacinematic sex farce with a cast of insects. Learning about that film alone justifies the entire study, though there are far more justifications in store in this excellent book.

Dodd, Adam. Beetle. London: Reaktion, 2016.