Want to know more about your native pollinators in North America? There are lots of resources!
A year or so ago I recommended this beautiful ebook as a FREE download: Bee Basics: An Introduction to Our Native Bees. It’s still available! One of the authors of that publication is back this year with a new book, this one aimed at a slightly younger audience. The new eBook by Beatriz Moisset: “Beginners Guide to Pollinators and other Flower Visitors” is available FREE during National Pollinator Week. (You can also find it on Barnes and Noble and iTunes.) This eBook is a quick guide to distinguishing types of insect visitors to flowers.
Xerces has quite a few amazing book-length resources, and the best of them is Attracting Native Pollinators. (Not free, alas, but well worth the price, and supports this great non-profit.) Conserving Bumblebees is also available as a FREE download, or as a print book. I have mentioned before the wonderful online Xerces Pollinator Conservation Resource center, that lets you find FREE resources by region of North America about plants, creating nest sites, and other ways to promote your local species. The US Forest Service also offers a FREE guide to Bumblebees of the Eastern States, as well as one for the Western States.
If you want to learn more about being a beekeeper, living in the country, and letting nature define the rhythyms of your life, you just can’t do better than Sue Hubbell’s “A Book of Bees.” Kirkus described it as a mix of “memoir, nature journal, and beekeeping manual.” Hubbell’s writing reminds me of another great country life writer, Anne Dillard. (If you haven’t read Dillard’s An American Childhood, read it now!)
If you want a more detailed discusson of pollination, but also a good read, I recommend “The Forgotten Pollinators” by Buchmann and Nabhan. This winner of several science writing awards discusses the relationship between plants and the many different animals they depend on for reproduction. Unfortunately, many endangered species are rare plants depending on rare insects–not a recipe for a stable ecosystem.
What books have I missed? Please let me know in the comments!
Heather is a hapless grad student that is also a bit of a klutz… and ends up infused with spider DNA. The results are far more pleasing to an entomologist than Spider-Man’s neutered and white-washed anatomy.
This? This is EXACTLY what would happen if I was bitten by a radioactive spider:
I was looking up a reference book on Amazon, and it happened again. Amazon recommended a book for me that was so strange, I couldn’t resist the temptation to download it.
Today, it was a book about were-spiders. I had to buy it.
Because….WERESPIDERS. I can’t wait to find out what kind of webs they spin.
A couple of weeks ago it was a book called “Kilts and Kraken” (in which I discovered that “Release the Kraken!” is a Scottish sexual euphemism), and the week before that something called “The Firefly Witch,” which had a disappointing amount of fireflies–i.e, none. I bought a book about carnivorous genetically modified thrips, and another one about carnivorous dust mites. You heard about “Bug, Naked” and the heroine’s web-slinging vagina last year.
You are probably sensing a theme here. Fiction books with insects or invertebrates in them are like a UV light to a moth for me–I can’t resist them. With the advent of eBooks, I can now discover random odd books and download them with one click. (Warning: eBooks are a gateway drug. For book addicts like me, this can rapidly develop into an expensive habit.)
Even when the books are terrible, I usually still have fun reading them. And as someone who wants to write fiction, but doesn’t seem to have it in me to actually write a book, I feel a little guilty about being publicly critical of a author’s efforts. (Unless it’s something like The Worst Book I’ve Ever Read EVAR, Cicada Summer. I can only describe it as “Sexist, Racist Plan 9 from Outer Space with Reproductively Deviant Giant Grasshoppers.” That one I lambasted with no guilt at all.)
What books can’t you resist?
Have you read anything on an impulse that was fun?
Spider Silk: Evolution and 400 Million Years of Spinning, Waiting, Snagging, and Mating. Leslie Brunetta and Catherine L. Craig. 2011. Yale University Press.
Spiders evoke a lot of complex feelings from humans. In a survey of teenagers asked about their top fears, spiders ranked #2–right after terrorist attacks. A quick comparison of “kill spiders” to kill insects” on Google trends shows that about twice as many people are looking for ways to kill spiders. So, I know when I recommend a book about spiders to you, some of you will run away screaming.
But! For those that are interested in evolution, and can tolerate a few extra legs, there is a great new book available! Spider Silk has won several awards for science writing, and it’s easy to see why. This is a wonderful introduction to the history of spider evolution, and a great review and explanation of how evolution works. Here’s an example:
“A beneficial variation does not arise alone as a one-in-a-million chance event; rather, it is the lone survivor from a pool made up of a million other chance variations. In other words, variations do not occur infrequently, they survive and perpetuate infrequently.”
That is an explanation of one of the classic misunderstandings of natural selection! Mutations occur all the time; you are all mutants. It’s just rare that these code changes make a difference and/or persist beyond one generation.
That is where this book really shines for me as a scientist and an educator. It’s wonderful to learn about the fossil history of spiders, and all the different types of webs they make; but what I liked most about the book is the very readable and clear explanation of how mutation, natural selection, and other evolutionary factors created that diversity. This includes some of the more complex biochemistry of evolutionary change. The point mutations of amino acids that build all the different proteins in spider webs are explained in very clear non-technical language. Diagrams illustrate just how the molecular structure of spider silk allows it to function as an extraordinarily strong bungee cord.
There also are delightful humorous and historical touches sprinkled through the book, such as the use of spider silk in WWI and WWII for bomb sights. Along the way you’ll learn about the amazing diversity of webs and spiders, and how the basic spider body has changed from their aquatic ancestors.
Also there are photos (some in color!) all through the book helping the reader to visualize the different webs and how they are produced. I finally was able to see examples of some spiders that I had only read about, such as this turret web spider.
The Gentle Subversive: Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, and the Rise of the Environmental Movement. Mark Hamilton Lytle, 2007. Oxford Univ. Press.
Bug Rating: (with some caveats)
I have written quite a bit about Rachel Carson, mainly because I am baffled at the amount of vitriol still spewed over her book Silent Spring nearly 50 years after it’s publication. It’s turned out to be my own personal mini-crusade, since everytime I mention the name of this woman people come out of the woodwork to say…well, ill-informed wing-nutty things, frankly, including people who should know better.
I find Carson fascinating not just because she is the focus of a modern dis-information campaign, but because she was a scientist that could write. And I mean REALLY write, not just to communicate, but to bring the beauty and love of the natural world that she saw around her alive.
In all the DDT hoopla, it seems people have forgotten that Carson wrote beautiful prose about science. She wrote well enough to win a National Book Award, and to have her science book stay #1 on the New York Times best seller list for 86 weeks:
“If there is poetry in my book about the sea, it is not because I deliberately put it there, but because no one could write truthfully about the sea and leave out the poetry.”
I was interested this short biography of Carson, and picked it up. I’m really glad I did, because it helped me gain a better understanding of this woman and the huge challenges she faced. And there were a lot of challenges.
Carson did not come from a wealthy family, and much of her life was occupied in chasing enough money to support herself and her extended family. Carson moved her mother, her brother and sister, and her 2 nieces into one house–and became the primary financial support for all of them during the Depression. In 1929, women did not commonly apply to Johns Hopkins, or gain admission to graduate school at Woods Hole. Carson did both of those things successfully, and recieved a Masters in 1932.
She skipped pursuing a PhD in order to seek work, and was lucky enough to find a home in the Department of Fisheries. She began writing radio scripts, and progressed to writing USFW publications and magazine pieces. Carson published her first book in 1941–which was promptly eclipsed by a world at war, and did not prove to be very profitable. In 1950, she got her big break with The Sea Around Us, which did bring enough income in to allow her to purchase a home in Maine and become an independent writer. In 1950 Carson also had her first cancer tumor removed from her left breast.
Reading her story now, I can’t help but think of my many freelancing writer friends, and how they struggle to support their families and to try to make a living. It doesn’t seem to have gotten any easier in the last 50 years to be an independent writer.
Carson had a demanding family life. Her mother wanted to be connected and involved in Rachel’s life in a way that…well, I found kind of creepy. Rachel’s niece (who was, remember, living with her and diabetic) had an out of wedlock child. Carson became the primary caregiver for both her elderly mother and disabled niece, and could not afford to put either of them in a nursing home or have home help. That Carson could write well under those conditions is pretty amazing. And that doesn’t even begin to cover how much stress she must have been under when writing Silent Spring.
In 1958 Carson began work on what would become Silent Spring–her last book. She had a radical mastectomy in 1959. Early excerpts of the book attracted vitriolic criticism, and lots of gendered slurs. ”Shrill.” “Emotional.” “Unscientific.”
In 1960 Carson developed secondary tumors and blood poisoning, and was confined to a wheelchair for many months. In 1961 she developed an infection that caused her to loose her sight for several months, and was unable to read what she had written. In 1962, as Silent Spring was going to press, more tumors were found in her abdomen. She wore a wig to testify in Congress, hiding her loss of hair from radiation treatments. By late 1963 compression fractures in her spine from radiation treatments made walking difficult and painful. Carson died in Spring 1964.
This woman had ovaries of brass. I am in awe of how tenacious and determined she must have been to finish this last project. Her letters show she was hanging on by her fingertips, determined to see it through.
As for this book—how does it compare to other Carson biographies? It is short, and a quick read, and has enough footnotes you can be fairly sure of source material. I was very happy that the author chose to not speculate about the nature of Carson’s close friendships with other smart, sciency women of her time, since we don’t know for sure if they were or were not platonic or romantic.
The book itself sort of falls into two parts: things jerks said to Carson while she was alive, and things jerks say about her now that she’s dead. It’s not comprehensive, but for a quick dip into the issue and a history of what Carson endured, it’s a good read. I don’t think the author covered modern attacks on Carson very well, but much of the documentation of who paid for the “hit” on Carson came out in late 2007/2008, so that’s understandable.
At one time I was pretty actively writing about Carson and DDT, and trying to combat the misinformation campaigns put out by various astroturf groups. I eventually stopped, mostly because the people that comment on that topic scare me. I have gotten many, many threats over those posts, most of them threats of sexual assault. Those posts about DDT and Rachel Carson are the reason that comments on posts close after 40 days on this blog, since that way I don’t have to go in daily and remove nasty spittle-flecked comments.
I can’t be intimidated into believing their lies about a brave woman and a wonderful writer, but I was intimidated enough that I stopped writing about Carson to stay under their radar. I think I need to take a lesson from Ms. Carson herself. In the face of terrible pain and opposition, she WON with good writing and truth.
“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature — the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.” Rachel Carson
I wonder if sometimes I feel driven to defend Carson because I see so much of my sister in her. Both women are talented, had breast cancer much too young–and neither one seems able to catch a fucking break. Anything that could go wrong does seem to go wrong.
And by God, if you mess with my sister, you mess with ME.
I got your back, Rachel. I got your back.
- If you haven’t read Carson’s “The Sense of Wonder” you should.
- How well have claims in Carson’s 1962 book held up? Pretty well, actually!
- A collection of things I and others have written to try to set the record straight about Carson and DDT
- PBS Carson Documentary
- Audio Interview with the Biography Author
- Interview with the Biography Author at Oxford Press Blog