Three books for reluctant, and not-so-reluctant, naturalists

Insects and Flowers, by Friedrich G. Barth. Translated by M. A. Biederman-Thorson. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. 297 pp. $35. Beauty and the Beast, by Susan Grant. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. 215 pp. $14.95. The Reluctant Naturalist, by Charles A. Monogan. New York: Atheneum. 112 pp. $10.95. In late April and early May of each year, it appears that the peonies are under siege. Ants of various sizes crawl all over the as-yet-unopened flower buds, nibbling away. What are they doing?

Well, the ants happen to like the sweet secretions of the peony, and their consumption of that liquid is essential to the flower -- it allows it to open. We can call this a partnership, as Friedrich G. Barth does in the subtitle to his unfailingly interesting study, Insects and Flowers.

Of course, Barth, a professor of biology at the University of Frankfurt, would tell the above story in considerably more scientific detail: in his book, there are chapters on ``Pore Plates and 3-D Smelling,'' ``The Noses of Flies, Beetles, and Butterflies,'' and ``Nectar Collecting and the Biomechanics of the Lepidopteran Proboscis.''

This may sound a bit daunting and, admittedly, Barth's book is demanding, yet what he shows and tells is absorbing. (``Insects and Flowers'' contains numerous drawings and some absolutely astonishing microphotographs.)

Barth's book is the sort that poses a question like, ``How is the proboscis [of a butterfly] unrolled?'' and then proceeds to devote a few pages to an intricate discussion of the matter.

As for the answer, it is more complex than space permits, but much depends on resilin, ``a rubberlike substance, a protein, with unusual elastic properties,'' which allows for extension of the proboscis, and, also, on a suction pump activated when the butterfly pumps blood into its proboscis and closes a certain valve.

In ``Insects and Flowers,'' Barth necessarily devotes much attention to bees -- their senses, their dances, and how it is they interact so harmoniously with flowers. This book is the work of an immensely learned man; its only flaw, a sometimes wooden translation.

What we have been talking about here is usually called coevolution, and that is the subject of Susan Grant's more readable but considerably less detailed Beauty and the Beast.

Grant talks about bees and cross-pollination, but she also talks about seed-dispersal by animals and the interdependency of reef-building corals and tiny algae.

Mistletoe seeds, she informs us, ``are coated with a bitter, sticky material called viscin, as well as a layer of soft flesh. Birds that feed on mistletoe eat the berries, swallow the flesh, and regurgitate the viscin-coated seeds. The viscin allows the seeds to cling to a branch of a tree where the bird is perched; later they germinate on the branch.''

``Beauty and the Beast'' is full of the arcana of coevolution, and while it is nowhere near as scientifically complex as Barth's ``Insects and Flowers,'' it is also less taxing. Grant's book is nicely illustrated by Laszlo Kubinyi.

If, on the other hand, you are one of those people ``who would rather be forced to sell potato peelers door-to-door than hike into the deep woods,'' you should look at Charles A. Monagan's The Reluctant Naturalist.

Mr. Monagan has obviously read lots of field guides and natural histories, so appropriate is his vocabulary as he lampoons the generic naturalist's style. Here is the entry for Oct. 20: ``Saw my breath this morning, not an unusual experience except that I was still in bed when I saw it. This sighting did not fill me with scientific curiosity but rather with the feeling that I should remain in bed until early afternoon. This I did.''

Even though it wears thin after a while, the naturalist, whether amateur or professional, should find parts of ``The Reluctant Naturalist'' simply hilarious. And the ending is perfect: ``See you in the woods (but not if I can help it).''

James Kaufmann reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

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