August 16, 1993 12:00 PM

by Sue Hubbell

Prospecting for ladybugs is no job for the faint of heart. It’s hard work bushwhacking through the back-country of California’s Sierra Nevada, where the dotted critters gather in clumps of thousands to wait out the summer’s heal and drought. Besides, ladybug people are fiercely protective of their collecting sites; they’ve been known to fire on rivals they suspect of poaching. But gardeners across America prefer ladybugs to pesticides for controlling plant-eating aphids, and a good ladybug harvester can make up to $1,000 a day in season supplying the colorful beetles to bug-supply houses.

That is just a taste of the arcana Hubbell imparts in her whimsical hook. She devotes chapters to butterflies (Vladimir Nabokov, an accomplished lepidopterist, borrowed his reference to Lolita’s “soft, downy limbs” from a textbook description of a type of butterfly); killer bees (their fierceness is much exaggerated, their economic potential enormous); crickets (for those who want to raise them, the best food is Cricket Chow); and nine other species.

Along the way, Hubbell encounters such eccentric characters as Karölis Bagdönas, a Lithuanian butterfly chaser whose battle cry is “let’s do some biology” as he charges over 800 miles of insect territory with a band of fledgling biologists scampering behind; and Cassie Gibbs, a black-fly specialist at the University of Maine, who marvels that the Endangered Species Act explicitly fails to protect pests.

Best of all, Hubbell’s engaging and often poetic prose makes a subject most people would dismiss as terminally dull, and more likely downright creepy, into something irresistible. (Random House, $23)

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