Extreme insects: Bitten by the bug?

They are among the planet's most varied and vibrant creatures, and are vital to our very survival – so why don't we love creepy-crawlies? Gillian Orr reports

If someone were to announce that they had head lice, those around them would most likely respond with mild disgust, before making a swift exit. Not Richard "Bugman" Jones, however. He would be fascinated, for it is insects – the good, the bad and the ugly – which are his life-long passion.

A childhood interest in creepy-crawlies inherited from his nature-loving botanist father turned into a full-blown love affair after he finished studying biology and was working in medical publishing and realised that his heart was in entomology.

"Through looking at insects," Jones excitedly announces, "you can study the world – the whole natural environment – far better than you can by looking at humans. In fact, there's a lovely idea that, if an alien civilisation landed on Earth and had limited time and resources to study life, all it need do is study beetles and dismiss everything else as a sampling error, because you can understand the whole of evolution, ecology, genetics, physiology – the whole way life on earth works – just by studying insects."

Jones begun writing articles for publications such as BBC Wildlife and various gardening magazines until he found he could support himself purely with his love of bugs. Now that passion can be seen in his stunning new book, Extreme Insects.

Featuring huge, close-up vivacious images of over one hundred different insects, the chances are you would never have seen them in such detail. Jones selected the ones featured – a tough job considering there are millions of insect species – by highlighting the most extreme kinds. There's the shiniest (golden chafer), the loudest (dog-day cicada), the heaviest (giant weta), the shortest lived (mayfly) and so on.

Accompanying the striking pictures are descriptions of the insect, why its behaviour or appearance is so extreme and why it has evolved that way. It beautifully highlights the wonder that is nature and serves as a fascinating look at creatures many people are quick to dismiss as a nuisance.

Jones wanted people to get to know insects better. "People can look at birds and mammals and reptiles and can see that they're big or small," he explains.

"They have an idea what they look like because people are used to seeing them – they know their colours and their shapes – but they're not used to insects, and it's not until you look at them under a hand lens or microscope that you can see and appreciate their completely bizarre and unique structure."

He breaks down the insects into three categories: extreme form, extreme evolution and extreme impact, allowing him to show us the insects' physical features, behaviour and influence. But how did he decide on the different titles?

"I just started with the biggest, fattest, smallest, thinnest and longest and worked my way through some of the obvious ones. Those ones were fairly easy but there are not many of those; you get those out of the way quite quickly.

"Then it was a case of running my mind through some of the extreme structures that insects have, and some of the extreme behaviours. Insects are all manner of peculiar shapes and sizes and have very different functions."

Even his children got involved in brainstorming ideas for categories.

Once he had the various insects he wanted to include, he had to find suitable images. "It was a question of going through quite a few picture libraries, trawling through their catalogues to see what images they had."

Unfortunately he found that he had to abandon some of his choices merely because there were no decent pictures. One included the most pollution-tolerant insect, a fly found in California that lays its eggs in the crude oil that seeps out of the ground then feeds on other insects that have been poisoned on impact with the oil.

"It has been known that this exists for about 100 years and people have studied it because they're interested to know how on earth this critter can survive in such a toxic environment, but we just couldn't find a good image. All we had was a tinned specimen of the adult fly in a museum".

Even if he could get a photograph, it was sometimes not of the quality he was after. "They had to be bright, startling images which would show off the feature that we wanted to talk about. It's quite difficult because we had things like the most cold-tolerant, and you can't really show an insect tolerating cold, so we'd just get a bright portrait. On others we managed to get the behaviour going on."

The insect with the most generous nuptial gift – the male hump-winged cricket, which allows the female to devour the wings of the male while mating – was a particular challenge. "Eventually, though, we came across some really nice pictures." The gruesome action has been caught on film and makes for a fantastic image.

On one occasion the Natural History Museum came to his rescue. The rarest insect, a particular species of duke water beetle that was discovered in 1882 by the distinguished British entomologist David Sharp and brought back to the Natural History Museum, has never been seen in the wild again.

"That photo didn't exist until I approached them," Jones recalls. "A colleague of mine there supported me to get a photo of it. It's quite a spectacular beast, so they took the photo of their specimen especially for us. Now that photo is ready for anyone who wants to use it."

Talking with Jones, you can't help but get swept up in his enthusiasm for bugs. So what was his favourite tale that he came across? "The most dramatic recovery from near-extinction, which was the Lord Howe Island stick insect was just a fantastic story," he enthuses.

"As soon as I read about Lord Howe Island I wanted to go there on holiday. It's a nice story – it was a peculiar insect that people thought was extinct because of the rats and goats and other domestic animals which had been released on to what was a virgin paradise back in the Victorian age, and now it has been rediscovered and they're breeding it."

Aware of its limited appeal, Jones and other entomologists are concerned about who will carry their work on, though he hopes that his time spent with schoolchildren will spark an interest in insects among some of them. "It's nice because children are still absolutely fascinated with insects, especially when they learn something new.

For instance, I'm always asked, "Are ladybirds poisonous?" and I explain to them that yes, they are, but you have to eat quite a lot of them for them to do you any harm. Immediately their faces grimace and they realise, "Wow, birds don't like eating ladybirds, that's why they're brightly coloured" and you've immediately got across quite a basic biological concept about warning colours to a five-year-old."

Jones is also thrilled that natural history and the environment seems to be creeping on to the school curriculum, certainly more so than it was 20 years ago, he feels.

After all, without insects, life would be very different. "Insects dominate the middle ground of every food web in the world and if you got rid of them, then everything ahead of them would die, and that would effectively change the whole planet. Also, insects eat plants, and, while you don't want them to eat crops, they also eat weeds. If those plants were to go unchecked, it would alter everything and cause disruption to the ecosystems of the world."

Jones wants to share his love of insects with the public and he doesn't worry about what people make of him and his peculiar interest. "I suppose it's not like studying birds or going fishing, which are quite popular. You draw attention to yourself and you have to be a bit accepting of the mild eccentricity that you obviously show to the world if you are wandering around with an insect net."

He continues: "It goes with a lot of walks of life – if you're doing something slightly out of the ordinary. But I'm quite happy to be regarded as a bit strange."

'Extreme Insects' is published by Collins (£30). To order a copy for the special price of £27 (free P&P) call Independent Books Direct on 08430 600 030, or visit www.independentbooksdirect.co.uk