biology zoology blog benno meyer rochow insects in books


No, not “living books”, but what “lives in books”!

Books can be full of life – and what an avid reader I was as a teenager and young man! But I don’t just mean the characters in the works of Maupassant, Gogol, Dostojewski, and many others; oh, and not to forget Moby Dick’s author Herman Melville. No, I have something else in mind: especially old and dusty books can present a veritable “habitat”, in which the food chain starts with the pages (or the glue that holds them together) and supports a variety of organisms.

Made of basically cellulose and glue, the pages’ material (i.e., paper) is liked by a variety of insects: the proverbial “booklice”, for instance. Contrary to their common name, however, they are not actually lice at all, but small, white and soft-bodied insects known as “Psocoptera” with reduced wings and tiny eyes, the latter having had their ultrastructure and responses to UV-radiation examined by Meyer-Rochow & Mishra in 2007. In addition to these insects, dust-mites are likely to be present and there may be a few book scorpions lurking between the pages. Book scorpions are minuscule predators and totally harmless to humans. Although they resemble scorpions in looks, their flat bodies’ total lengths reach no more than 2 mm and there is no sting at the rear end. They do, however, carry two formidable claws on their heads (magnifying glass required), which gives them a fierce appearance. Little wonder then that the zoologist calls them “pseudoscorpions”. These minuscule monsters don’t eat pages, but eat the page-eaters instead and may live happily up to two years always between the pages and sufficient food available.

Somewhat larger, but interested in the glue/cellulose mix that holds the pages together and not eating others (perhaps except when they are dead), are the silverfish. These ancient, scale-bearing and wingless insects with their characteristic tail bristles produce babies that look exactly like the adults, only much smaller. They grow by moulting and don’t like conditions that are too wet or humid. In the folk medicinal armamentarium of Japan, these insects had an application as remedies for eye disorders and kidney problems. But how about the (or infamous) bookworms?

A variety of beetles and moths can use books as a substrate for their burrowing legless larvae, which are often (wrongly) referred to as “worms” and which can really chew holes into the pages and tunnels into the book. Their only enemies, apart from the books’ owners, may be spiders residing under the books’ spines, where these eight-legged predators can spin a little web and deposit their eggs.

The greatest book destroyers, however, at least in tropical countries, are beyond doubt termites with their ability to digest wood. I saw a photograph of a book about termites in an entomology volume once, which showed that the termite book had been eaten up almost completely by termites. Clearly, it would seem that these greedy little insects did not like what had been written about them (or did not want the readers to learn too much about them). Actually, with the exception of the reproductive casts, worker and soldier termites do not possess eyes. They may simply have been hungry and/or needed building material for their nest or mound.

© Dr V.B. Meyer-Rochow and, 2019.
Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to V.B Meyer-Rochow and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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