Endless forms The secret world of wasps

Seirian Sumner

Book - 2022

In this eye-opening and entertaining work of popular science in the spirit of The Mosquito, Entangled Life, and The Book of Eels, a leading behavioural ecologist transforms our understanding of wasps, exploring these much-maligned insects' secret world, their incredible diversity and complex social lives, and revealing how they hold our fragile ecosystem in balance.

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New York : Harper, an imprint of Harper Collins Publishers 2022.
Main Author
Seirian Sumner (author)
First U.S. edition
Physical Description
387 pages, 16 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations (some color) ; 24 cm
Includes bibliographical references (pages 347-365) and index.
  • Introduction
  • Part 1. The Problem with Wasps
  • Part 2. The Obsessions of Wasp Whisperers
  • Part 3. How to Have a Social Life
  • Part 4. Playing the Game
  • Part 5. Dinner with Aristotle
  • Part 6. Nature's Pest Controllers
  • Part 7. The Secret Pollinators
  • Last Word: A Future with Wasps
  • Notes
  • Acknowledgements
  • List of Illustrations
  • Index
Review by Booklist Review

Sumner, a professor of behavioral ecology, provides a fascinating introduction to the much-maligned wasp. She laments the focus and emphasis placed on bees, which she describes as "wasps that have forgotten how to hunt." Sumner's research has taken her around the world and introduced her to many other "wasp whisperers." Her passion for wasps and their global importance as both predators and pollinators is compelling. In one instance, she frames using wasps as a biocontrol agent in place of pesticides in sub-Saharan Africa as a humanitarian issue. The text is full of intriguing facts about wasps, ranging from cultural references to their complex social lives. The writing is engaging and humorous; Sumner describes a certain species of wasp as feasting "like a hungry teenager at a sushi bar." While entertaining, sections describing imagined conversations with wasp whisperers of the past and a dinner party with Aristotle seem slightly out of place. The book concludes with a detailed notes section. This interesting and entertaining work is sure to leave readers buzzing.

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

Entomologist Sumner debuts with a tour de force on the world of wasps, delving into their daily lives, economic value to society, and the important ecological niches they fill. Though they have a bad rap, the insects are full of surprises, Sumner writes. For example, they're the evolutionary precursor of both bees and ants, and their social structures feature "divisions of labour, rebellions and policing, monarchies, leadership contests... negotiators, social parasites, undertakers." Their genetics open the door to a deep consideration of the evolution of altruism, "one of the longest-standing puzzles in the natural sciences," Sumner writes, because their willingness to "sacrifice themselves to promote the survival of their relatives" is a central feature of the life of a hive. She recounts their reproductive strategies of paralyzing prey then laying eggs in the bodies, suggests that wasps and bees can recognize individual human faces, and extends her study into a clever calculation of the economic value of wasps, noting that they account for "almost 50 per cent of the 230 invertebrate species that are commercially used as biocontrol agents," which has an "estimated value of well over $400 billion a year." Funny, informative, and zippy, this is just the thing for budding entomologists. (July)

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Review by Library Journal Review

Entomologist Sumner's first nonacademic book, exploring the secret lives of wasps, is educational, important--and extremely funny. At first glance it may seem targeted at a narrow audience, those interested in insects or keenly aware of pollinator decline. Those listeners will find much to love here, but the humor and joy that surrounds the information makes it a must-buy for any popular science collection. Sumner's narration and writing imbue her subject with an amusing charm that never interferes with the facts but makes way for laugh-out-loud sections that enhance the pleasure of learning captivating, lesser-known truths. Sumner, who is a professor of behavioral ecology at University College London, narrates with enthusiasm and a trustworthy, conversational manner that keeps listeners' interest piqued. After finishing this audiobook, listeners may be unable to see these almost universally feared creatures in the same light. They'll know that wasps are vital to our world and one of the most intriguing creatures of the past millennia. So entrancing is this work that listeners might grab the print book, too, so they can listen and take notes. VERDICT Engaging, informative, and fun, this audio will be a hit with popular science and nonfiction readers.--Matthew Galloway

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Review by Kirkus Book Review

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. Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.