Wild Ideas: Books on bug music, what plants know and more added to Conservation Collection   

Along with some great books on birds, which I reviewed briefly in my Dec. 22 column, the Rappahannock County Public Library has also added some fascinating, useful books on insects, amphibian larvae and plants to its Conservation Collection:

“Bug Music: How Insects Gave Us Rhythm and Noise,” by David Rothenberg, is based on the author’s idea that, as he puts it, “we humans got our idea of rhythm, synchronization, and dance from the world of insect sounds that surrounded our species during the millions of years over which we evolved.” A philosopher, jazz musician, and professor of philosophy and music at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, Rothenberg combines his knowledge and passion for these disciplines with information on the biology of noisy insects, from bees to katydids, to cicadas. The book includes his experience playing music with them. Altogether, it’s an interesting, inspiring and funny read. Although not included with the book, the sounds mentioned in it are available on a companion CD or for download at Amazon.com.

Although they may be among the loudest, cicadas are only one of many insects that we hear and that may inspire us, as explained in “Bug Music,” now at the Rappahannock Library. By Pam Owen

“The Bees in Your Backyard: A Guide to North American Bees,” by Joseph W. Wilson and Olivia J. Messinger Carril, is a beautifully illustrated book that helps readers identify bees among the 4,000 species found in the U.S. and Canada. It covers basic bee biology and how to distinguish them from wasps, flies and other insects that resemble (and sometimes intentionally mimic) bees; bee habits and lifestyles; how to collect and study bees; and how to attract them to your neighborhood.

Know which species of bee this is? A new bee guide at the Rappahannock Library may help. By Pam Owen

The book is organized by bee family and tribe, with gorgeous close-up photos that are, alone, worth checking the book out. Among the photos are ones that show various physical characteristics that point to the bee’s genus. Also included is a key for identifying bee family based on its physical attributes and where the family’s description can be found in the book. The information for each tribe includes a box with the range of sizes within each tribe, and the member species’ active period and distribution. There’s even a chapter on colorful bee thieves, which steal pollen from other bees. Although too big for lugging around easily in the field, this book should be in the reference library of anyone interested in bees.

“Handbook of Larval Amphibians of the United States and Canada,” by Ronald Altig, Roy W. McDiarmid, Aaron M Bauer, is among the few references available — and arguably the best, most definitive one — for sorting out the larvae (tadpoles) of amphibians in the U.S. and Canada. Published in 2015 by Cornell University Press, this reference is especially pertinent to the southern Appalachians, which has the most salamander species and supports many species of frogs.

Sorting out tadpoles can be tricky, but a new detailed guide to amphibian larvae at the Rappahannock Library can help. By Pam Owen

Far from being a primer, this handbook is detailed and includes several black-and-white photos for most species, along with one in color. As the curator of herpetology at the American Museum of Natural History in an Amazon review puts it, this references “is a must-have for any serious naturalist interested in the life history of North American amphibians.”


“What a Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses,” by Daniel Chamovitz, is a fascinating addition to the growing body literature on research that blurs the line between flora and fauna. As Chamovitz, the director of the Manna Center for Plant Biosciences at Tel Aviv University, explains, his research in biological process specific to plants led him “to realize that the genetic difference between plants and animals is not as significant as I had once believed.” He goes on to write that, although plants don’t have an organ equivalent to our brains, and their senses may be more limited, they can still perceive and react — often more quickly than once thought — to sensual stimuli around them. He points out that plants, “on a genetic level” are “more complex than many animals” and “have evolved complex sensory and regulatory systems that allow them to modulate their growth in response to ever-changing conditions.”

Plants have a more sophisticated response to external stimuli than once thought, as explained in “What a Plant Knows,” now at the Rappahannock Library. By Pam Owen

Among many examples, Chamovitz explores how plants “see” and respond to specific light waves by starting and stopping growth (reds) and bending toward other wavelengths (blue), “smell” chemicals that trigger a cascade of fruiting, “hear” vibrations that seem to seem to help trigger pollination, “know” whether they are upside down or right-side up and “remember” events that affect them. The book sometimes digs deep into the weeds, so to speak, but remains eminently readable and amazing.

“The Living Landscape: Designing for Beauty and Biodiversity in the Home Garden,” by Rick Darke and Douglas Tallamy, invites readers to envision how our native plants, which we often take for granted, can be incorporated into landscape design, combining beauty with biodiversity. Tallamy, an entomologist, is famous for his ground-breaking book on conserving and planting native plants in our backyards, “Bringing Nature Home,” and Darke, a friend of his, is an award-winning photographer. Neighbors and friends, they focus the book mostly on the Mid-Atlantic, where they live.

Darke’s glorious photos dominate the book. The text, by both authors, complements the photos well, annotating and adding to them with important information about plant and wildlife ecology as well as how color and other artistic components factor into designing native-plant landscapes. As Tallamy puts it in his preface, the book “focuses on creating landscapes that support life without sacrificing traditional aesthetic values.”

The chapters cover layers in the wild landscape and how to apply those to home gardens, interrelationships among organisms, the ecological function of gardens and “the art of observation.” At the back is a table of plants native to the Mid-Atlantic that includes the ecological functions (food or cover for wildlife, carbon sequestration) and landscape functions (for example, seasonal flowers, fragrance, shade and cooling, etc.) for each plant.

At this time of year, when nature is stripped down to its bare bones, browsing through the lush, biodiverse landscapes within the book is a special treat to be savored slowly, as I did on New Year’s Day. It gave me a hopeful start to the new year.

© 2016 Pam Owen

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 335 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”