KU researcher’s acclaimed new volume on insects nets Nautilus Book Awards
Credit: Sterling Books
LAWRENCE — The idea of bringing creepy-crawly insects into your home and setting them out on the coffee table could make most people bug out.
But, here’s an exception.
A richly illustrated book on insects by a University of Kansas entomologist, recently published to critical praise, has just earned two Nautilus Book Awards in the categories of Animals & Nature and Young-Adult Nonfiction.
Writing about the vast diversity and amazing biology of insects, author Michael Engel, Distinguished Professor of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology and senior curator with KU’s Biodiversity Institute and Natural History Museum, compiled the accompanying illustrations in “Innumerable Insects: The Story of the Most Diverse and Myriad Animals on Earth” (Sterling, 2018) by poring over materials in the American Museum of Natural History’s rare book collection — considered by many to be the finest natural-history rare book collection in North America.
“The remarkable works of scientific art produced for these rare books reveal how amazing the most diverse organisms on the planet really are,” Engel said. “The book is an amalgam between history, art, biology and the natural history of these groups — all illustrated using these highly detailed paintings and woodblock carvings of insects from the past — with vignettes on the history of famous illustrators, researchers and explorers. I tried to keep a scholarly flair while tailoring the text for the layperson, not scientists.”
Engel, who came to KU nearly 20 years ago after working at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York, wrote the book while splitting his time between Lawrence and New York City.
“The writing I did here in Lawrence,” he said. “Of course, they’ve got thousands and thousands of rare books at the AMNH, and during research visits back to New York I would arrange blocks of time to scour through the volumes and figure plates in the rare book collection. I read through a multiplicity of volumes, looking for the best images and reports on interesting early discoveries. At the same time, I’d take photos of paintings and woodcuts along with notes for hundreds of images which I would then bring back to Lawrence where I could ponder things and sketch out text. Inevitably, as things took shape, I’d realize where I needed to fill in historical or taxonomic gaps, like, ‘I really need more images of praying mantises,’ or, ‘I need to look at more of the older volumes from the 1700s,’ and this process would guide my rare-book hunting during each subsequent visit to New York.”
The rare books put at Engel’s disposal included woodcuts and plates dating back to before the printing press was invented in Europe. However, the earliest images the KU researcher ultimately included in “Innumerable Insects” date back to 1602. Paring the total number of images down for inclusion was a challenge as, he said, “There was such a diversity and wealth of incredible artistry that could potentially be included.”
Many of the early entomologists and illustrators are well-known to insect researchers, such as the “indefatigable” John Westwood. Westwood was a prolific entomologist and illustrator whose books and etchings are familiar to anyone who studies insects — an incredible artist as well as a scientist who studied everything from beetles to antiquities.
Yet, even with some famous entomologists and books, there were surprises to be found. For example, Charles Butler, a country vicar and beekeeper, wrote a renowned book on apiculture in Britain and was first to popularize the idea that a ruler of a bee colony was a queen, not a king.
“I sat down with his original book from 1609, titled ‘The Feminine Monarchie,’ and when Butler gets to a section on the different sounds from the hive — such as changes in buzzing he felt indicated a hive would swarm — I was amazed to discover he had composed a four-part madrigal based on these sounds and printed it within his book on bee biology,”Engel. “I became so smitten with Butler and his madrigal that I had to reproduce the latter in my book, along with the stained-glass window honoring Butler from his church in Wootton St. Lawrence, England.”
Other researchers and illustrators included in Engel’s book aren’t as well-known, perhaps because their work focused on insects with an ick factor.
“I’d heard of a book from the mid-1800s on sucking lice by Henry Denny,” he said. “As you can imagine, a lot of folios feature beautiful insects — there aren’t a lot of stunning monographs about lice, fleas and other ectoparasites. Yet, Denny’s book is simply amazing, and he executed all of the illustrations himself. I was so impressed by Denny that I had to include a vignette dedicated to him and his work. If his illustrations were in a gallery, then one would be struck by the simple beauty of the images — they are truly sublime. It’s not until after one is told that they’re of various species of lice that one might react with revulsion.”
In his day, Denny’s monograph received great attention and in anticipation of an expanded accompanying volume, he received lice specimens from numerous explorers, including from Charles Darwin, who collected material during his voyage around the world on the HMS Beagle.
“Unfortunately, the second monograph was never completed and Denny’s work was eventually supplanted by later researchers after his death, but none ever came close to approximating the artistry by which he rendered his subjects,” Engel said.
Engel’s work bringing together these researchers, illustrators and explorers, along with so many incredible images, has garnered the KU researcher critical praise.
“Engel covers insect diversity, evolution, ecology and physiology, among other topics, while including intriguing vignettes about early entomologists, including Maria Sibylla Merian, Julius T.C. Ratzeburg and Jan Swammerdam,” wrote Publishers Weekly. “The images, however, are the stars of this work, which will delight every entomophile who turns its pages.” Another reviewer wrote for the Star Tribune, “By pairing his review with historical illustrations, he has created a visually mesmerizing entry point for anyone interested in exploring insects and the history of their study.”
The new recognition by the Nautilus Book Awards is a nod to the book’s value to building public awareness of the importance of insects to biodiversity and ecology. According to the organization, “Our core mission is to celebrate and honor books that support conscious living and green values, high-level wellness, positive social change and social justice, and spiritual growth.”
Recent research suggests up to 40 percent of insect populations are at risk of extinction, primarily due to habitat loss driven by development and changes in land use, pollution, invasive species and climate change, and Engel hopes that his book will “reveal to everyone just how amazing insects are and how vital they are to our survival. Yes, they’re in jeopardy, but there are things we can do to help if we act now.”
Engel’s final chapter focuses on pollination and the importance to humanity of preserving insects in general and pollinators in particular.
“Our world’s plants are critically dependent on insects, and by extension we are — really, our very lives depend on insect success,” he said. “We need to conserve them before they are lost and our only record of their myriad lives are from rare books.”
Brendan M Lynch