Amy Stewart's new book is called Wicked Bugs: The Louse That Conquered Napoleon's Army & Other Diabolical Insects (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, $18.95). It's the insect version of her popular 2009 work, Wicked Plants: The Weed That Killed Lincoln's Mother & Other Botanical Atrocities.

What can we say? The woman has a thing for all the morbid, shocking, and disgusting stuff that happens in the natural world.

Can't really argue with that. People like shocking and disgusting, and more and more, selling books is like making movies. When you find a winning formula, stick with it.

Not to say Stewart hasn't done great work. Her Flower Confidential: The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful in the Business of Flowers was a groundbreaker. Wicked Bugs doesn't have quite the sweep, but it's interesting, especially if you like insects.

Incidentally, Stewart admits the inaccuracy of calling all insects "bugs." She begs forgiveness, "bug" being more fun than "insect."

So, how wicked are these bugs?

The assassin bug is truly horrible. Stewart tells the story of the British diplomat who arrived in Uzbekistan in 1838 to enlist the support of the local emir against the advancing Russian empire. The emir inhospitably threw him into a "bug pit," where he was attacked by assassin bugs.

The officer sent to rescue him was also tossed into the pit and the two were literally eaten alive, but not to the death. They were ultimately beheaded in 1842, but only after Stewart treats us to the gross details of their torture.

This involves the assassin bug's preference for feeding around the mouth of its victim, and how chute-loads of horse manure were dumped in the pit to keep the bugs coming.


Not my thing, but perhaps bloodsucking, plague-carrying, venom-spewing, slime-squirting, penis-chomping, manure-loving, sap-sucking bad boys are yours.

If so, this book's for you.

- Virginia A. Smith