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Six Legs Walking: Notes from an Entomological Life

Six Legs Walking: Notes from an Entomological Life

WINNER — 2020 New Mexico-Arizona Book Award for Autobiography/Memoir

This is a most interesting read, scientific discussion with the occasional diversion into personality and comedy . . . Most of all, her patient dedicated passion for detailed observation of the minute interactions between predator and insect prey impressed this reviewer. 

—Entomologist’s Gazette

The book is a mixture of the human and non-human stories that make up a biologist’s life, where the creatures we study provide as much drama and food for thought as do the humans in our lives.

—American Entomologist

Like the painted lady butterflies that fascinated her as a child in Queensland, Australia, entomologist Elizabeth Bernays has lived a migratory adventure, following her scientific curiosity around the world before landing at the University of Arizona. In Six Legs Walking: Notes from an Entomological Life, Bernays takes us along on her evolution from backward child to accomplished biologist as she explores scholarship, culture, and love, all while immersed in the wonders of some of the smallest creatures on earth.

Young Liz becomes enamored with insects in her home garden while working beside her mother, who worries over her daughter being deemed intellectually impaired. An introduction to a working scientist and the encouragement of a beloved teacher inspire Elizabeth to go on to the University of Queensland to study biology.

While in graduate school in London, Elizabeth meets established entomologist Reg Chapman, who will become her partner in work and in life. As a British government scientist, she researches the habits of bugs in the hopes of finding biological solutions to controlling pests that damage crops in Nigeria, India, and Mali, working alongside local scientists and discovering the diversity of human cultural customs.

As a professor at the University of California Berkeley, she learns about American individualism and advocating on her own behalf. At last, Bernays settles in the Sonoran Desert, where she is visited by a hawk moth that launches her on yet another entomological expedition.

In this collection of autobiographical essays, Elizabeth Bernays educates readers on the progression and significance of biological research while sharing her sheer joy in the discoveries she makes. Six Legs Walking is the inspiring story of one woman’s lifelong love affair with science.

Elizabeth Bernays has written a beautiful memoir of a life in science that begins with her as a wonder-struck child in Queensland observing butterflies in her mother’s garden. Her work as a distinguished entomologist takes her to England, India, Mali, Nigeria, and, finally, to settle in the US. Her sense of amazement at nature and boundless curiosity makes this account of the attention, inventiveness, global spirit, and fun of a life in science shine. Insects, under her devoted scrutiny, prove to be spellbinding theater—“a performance of great skill.” This book offers a window into how and why to care about the smallest among us.

—Alison Hawthorne Deming, author of Zoologies: On Animals and the Human Spirit

Elizabeth Bernays transforms the structure and function of grasshopper jaws into poetry, metamorphoses hours of insect observations into applecart-upsetting scientific directions, and shares her life with passion and humility. It is an honor to view the marvel of insects through her creative magnifying lens.

—Marla Spivak, entomologist, 2010 MacArthur Fellow

Like her six-legged subjects molting into fresh skin, the author writes of a life of renewed growth and profound discovery. Bernays is Vanessa, the painted lady butterfly, the world-wandering, determined, and dependable explorer of all things fragrant and beautiful and equally destructive. Wrap yourself in mosquito netting and sink into this bug woman’s words and you will be transformed.

—Ken Lamberton, author of Wilderness and Razor Wire and Chasing Arizona
Elizabeth Bernays

Elizabeth Bernays (1940-2024) was an award-winning scientist and essayist.

As a child growing up during the 1940s and 1950s in Australia, Elizabeth fell in love with flowers, butterflies, and beetles. She obtained a BS in zoology and entomology at the University of Queensland, after which she embarked on a year of adventure that took her to Europe. Settling in England, she taught high school for three years while earning a MS, followed by a PhD, in entomology at the University of London. For thirteen years, she worked as a British government scientist researching locust physiology and behavior, and conducting field studies of various pest insects in India, Nigeria, Mali, and Niger.

In 1983, Dr. Bernays emigrated to the United States when she was appointed professor at the University of California Berkeley. There her research on the physiology and behavior of herbivorous insects continued, extending to ecology and evolution of plant-insect interactions, with an increasing involvement in collaborative work. In 1989, she relocated to the University of Arizona to head the Department of Entomology, with joint appointments in the Department of Neurobiology and the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.

After retiring, Elizabeth earned a MFA in creative writing from the University of Arizona in 2006. She was the author of two previous books for adults and three books for children, all self-published, and of a second memoir, Across the Divide: The Strangest Love Affair (Wheatmark, 2023). Her essays have appeared in a variety of literary journals including Driftwood, SNReviewCopper Nickel, Prime NumberDrafthorse, and Conte, as well as in several anthologies.