Bugs: Suffering stings for science
A garden is the perfect place to stop and smell the flowers -- when you're not fending off bugs, that is. Serena Altschul has the buzz:
You could say biologist Justin Schmidt has been bitten by the bug -- actually, a lot of bugs.
Take the honeybee: "They're about as toxic as a rattlesnake," he said. "I kind of make the analogy that if you took a rattlesnake, broke it into 500 pieces and then added wings, you've got honeybees."
He's devoted his life (and his body) to studying insect stings and venoms at his lab in Tucson, Arizona.
Altschul asked, "How many times have you been stung?"
"It's probably somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000 times," Schmidt replied.
He's been stung so many times, he figured all that pain could be helpful. So he came up with what he calls in his recent book the "Schmidt Scale of Pain." Stings from 84 different insects are rated on a scale from 1 to 4, and accompanied by some imaginative descriptions, like hot pain, itchy pain, burning pain …
"They're quite different, like the tarantula hawk is an electrifying one," Schmidt said. "Feels like you have electric power line break off and land on you."
And he describes the sweat bee as "Light, ephemeral, almost fruity."
Altschul laughed, "What are you talking about?"
"It's just a little, tiny thing," Schmidt said. "It's very light. It's almost like a teasing pain. It's just, 'Hey, open your arm up. Let me out. I don't mean any harm.'"
And the harvester ants found just outside his front door? They're an excruciating three out of four on his scale.
"This sting to me is one of the more painful of all of them," he said. "It feels like somebody's reaching under your skin and ripping out tendons and muscles."
But Schmidt isn't just studying what the stings feel like; he's also trying understand why insects sting in the first place. "Insects are tiny, tiny little things, and things that want to eat them are big," he said. "So you got this basic problem: How do you defend a little guy, a really little guy, against a really big guy? And the sting turns out to be the solution."
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