“Sex on Six legs” by Marlene Zuk | Book Review

This weekend I completed Marlene Zuk’s “Sex on Six Legs: Lessons on life, love, and language from the insect world”. The book is a short, entertaining, and sciencey non-fiction read in a world where many science books can be overwhelming.


I picked up the book this past summer and when I saw the cover I knew I had to get it. Sex, bugs, and Marlene Zuk’s insights? Sounds good! To be honest, I was also attracted by the length. At only 225 pages, this book is much less intimidating than other tomes of science non-fiction out there.

The first thing I gotta say is that this book is NOT all about sex. I was a bit disappointed when I figured that out because insect sex is quite fascinating and an entire book devoted to it would be great! However, for those non-scientists out there, it may be less intimidating to feature a variety of insect vignettes instead of hammering on sex for so long. Instead, the book focuses on a variety of behaviours making the connection that we can learn a lot about human (and other vertebrates) behaviour by insights from the bug world.

Each chapter provides a highlight of a new topic ranging from insect genomics, personalities, parental care, language, and even homosexuality. Within each section, there are highlights from various researchers and their findings in those fields of animal behaviour. For example, she talks in depth about the work of Tom Seeley and colleagues on group intelligence in bees including how the bees find suitable new homes and decide to move together to get there. The fact that Zuk took time to call out by name each researcher was one of my favourite parts of the book. If you are into entomology or behavioural ecology as more than a past time, you’ll find it enjoyable to recognize and look up some of the names later on. She also sets up the how and why of all the researcher’s experiments, sometimes even including a comparison of the results to the predictions. This task can be difficulty when writing for the general public and I think there are some hits and some misses among the book’s stories. Even as a scientist, I sometimes found the descriptions confusing or found that I was skimming over parts. However, there are so many vignettes in this book that missing a few may be okay.

Speaking of the book’s vignettes, this brings up my biggest complaint about the book. Despite being split into various topics, the stories of the insects and research discussed within each chapter are quite choppy. The chapter may start with water bugs, then switch to bees, then ants, then crickets without adequate transitions. I saw another book review on GoodReads (a website you should check out) that described the style as like a series of blog posts put together. I’d certainly agree with that. There is definitely a theme of the book and chapters, but sometimes it gets lost.

Photo by Greg Hume CC-BY-2.5.

Honeypot ant: Photo by Greg Hume CC-BY-2.5.

Okay, back to another thing I really liked about this book: I learned a lot. There were some parts that I knew about already, but many of the insects and topics I hadn’t heard much about at all. It made me feel like I was a kid again: thinking everything in animal behaviour was just amazing. I found myself stopping frequently to look up pictures of the insects or read even more online. Oh, yeah, there are no pictures in the book, which is a bit of a hamper when you’re describing the bulging abdomens of honeypot ants or bumpy backs of male toe biter bugs carrying eggs. Definitely be prepared to dog-ear some pages and look up pictures or videos later on. However, even without the necessary visuals, the book certain hits the “cool factor” button dead on.

Toe biter bug. photo taken by flickr user noisecollusion

Toe biter bug. photo taken by flickr user noisecollusion

My last thought is on the general writing of the book. When I first started reading it, many of the author’s comments and jokes felt really forced. They just didn’t seem to flow well with the tone of the book. However, as I read on, it didn’t seem to bother me as much. I’m not sure if this is because it got better or if I started to ignore it. Anyways, be prepared for some discomfort with it.

Overall, I’d give this book 3 out of 5 stars. I liked the content and the connection to real research and scientists. However, there were some stylistic and organizational things that really brought it down. The content of the books is good for anyone with a little bit of science and/or bug background. For example, she doesn’t discuss the intricacies of natural selection or evolution, so if it has been awhile, you may want to brush up before delving into the book. It’s a definitely a short read so it is worth picking up if you’ve got a bit of time to learn!


Thanks for reading! Do you like book reviews? Are they useful? Let me know! I have a stack of non-fiction science books that I have been meaning to read. Now that I am not in graduate school, it seems more fun to pick them up over my fiction books. I am now reading Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms: The Story of the Animals and Plants That Time Has Left Behind by Richard Fortey. I plan to review that book too if people seem interested. Maybe we can start a virtual book club?


Make it a Conversation: Best practices in #scicomm 3/n

Question_mark_alternateIf there is one thing that most people learn from their 18 + years of schooling is that they do not like to be lectured. Whether it is from your parents, your teachers, your friends, your coach or whoever, a long, drawn-out lecture usually doesn’t work. Compared to many fields, I think we have a good grasp on this, maybe since most scientists went to school for over 20 years. (Yeah, don’t think about that too much. It will make your head hurt). 

The point of this blog isn’t to tell you how to spice up your precious PPTs, but instead how to make your science communication a conversation. I think the best way to encourage conversation is to ask questions! Let your audience give their opinions and contribute to promoting your message. The most important thing is that you must avoid yes or no questions. We’ve all had that awkward moment where you ask someone a question and they simply respond “Nope”. The best way to avoid that situation is to use open-ended questions.

Below, I outline some various types of questions and how you can use them to encourage conversation. These could be beneficial during a classroom visit, public talk, or a conversation on the street. Your audience can change!

Questions to get the conversation rolling

1. Surveying: As I mentioned in my first blog post, it is important to get to know your audience. You can use surveying questions to begin this process.

  • Where are you from?
  • When were you last here? (Particularly appropriate if speaking with people at a museum, zoo, aquarium etc.)
  • What are you most excited about seeing/learning/hearing today? (This question is a great way to survey the interest of your audience. Depending on what they say, you can change your conversation.

2. Comparison: Once you start getting into the heart of the matter, start to let your audience contribute ideas with questions that ask for their opinion or views.

  • How do bird differ from bats? In what ways are they similar?
  • How do trees in your backyard look different from those found in the tropics? Why do you think that is the case?

Comparison questions get people to think. For scientists who also teach, you’ll recognize these as excellent exam questions because they encourage creativity! There is rarely one right answer and it is always amazing to hear what people will come up with when given the chance.

3. Focusing: These questions can serve as good follow-ups to more open-ended comparision questions. With a focusing question, you ask the person to pay close attention to one part. I like to use focusing questions with kids because they often need more guidance before providing answers.

  • Look at the bat’s ears. Now think about how those compare to a bird.
  • Think about the leaves on your backyard trees. Are they bigger or smaller than leaves from the tropics?

4. Problem-solving: I think this is my favorite question type because I love getting people to think like a scientist. Once you set-up a conversation by asking for comparisons and focusing their attention, it is now time to let your audience explore ideas on their own. Similar to the comparision questions above, problem-solving questions rarely have one right answer and they encourage creativity. However, you need to give your audience the tools and information to come up with solutions.

  • If you found a fossilized flying animal, how could you tell if it was a bird or a bat?
  • What do you think would happen if you moved a plant from your backyard to the tropics?

5. Application: These questions will really help drive home your point. This is your opportunity to turn the question “why should I care?” back on to the audience. From your smartly facilitated conversation, you audience should now be able to answer that question. You’ll also be surprised with what people come up with when encouraged to provide their own connections.

  • Why should we be worried about bat specific diseases like white nose syndrome?
  • Why should we control the spread of invasive plant species?

The one thing I hope you take away from this post is that creating conversation and asking questions offers the opportunity for your audience to engage with you in a new and beneficial way. When people are forced to think about these ideas for themselves, the connections between themselves and nature grow stronger. No matter what your specific science communication goal is, I’d say that outcome is a pretty good one.


How else do you encourage conversation in science communication? What is your favorite question to ask? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter (@crhoffman99).


Update: Thanks for making this post one of the Top 25 Science Communication stories!