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Justin Orvel Schmidt (pictured above) is an entomologist who specializes in insect defenses. His greatest expertise is in the stings of hymenopterans—the bees, wasps, sawflies, hornets, and ants (although he also researches the toxic/chemical defences of other arthropods). In the early 1980’s Schmidt attempted to systematize the different medical and physiological effects of insect stings. This work led him to coauthor one of the comprehensive tomes on the subject of insect venom Insect Defenses: Adaptive Mechanisms and Strategies of Prey and Predators. Unfortunately for Schmidt, in the course of his researches, he has been stung/bitten innumerable times by various aggressive and toxic insects (and other creepy crawlies) from around the world.
Based on these experiences, Schmidt attempted to categorize the algogenic (i.e. pain-inducing) effects of hymenopteran stings in the now world-famous Schmidt sting pain index. This index is a captivating blend of subjective pain analysis, horrifying real world experience, and inventive poetry. The lowest sting on the Schmidt index is a 0—betokening a sting which has no effect on humans. The highest rating is a 4 which describes an experience of maddening absolute agony. The index became famous because of an interview with Outdoor magazine. Schmidt has since conceded that his descriptive efforts lack an empirical basis and that stings vary depending on body location and the amount of venom injected. Because of such admissions, Wikipedia took down its remarkable table of stings–which is a shame because the subjective descriptions gave the index its visceral power. Here is a sampling copied verbatim from “Retrospectacle: A Neuroscience Blog”:
1.0 Sweat bee: Light, ephemeral, almost fruity. A tiny spark has singed a single hair on your arm.
1.2 Fire ant: Sharp, sudden, mildly alarming. Like walking across a shag carpet & reaching for the light switch.
1.8 Bullhorn acacia ant: A rare, piercing, elevated sort of pain. Someone has fired a staple into your cheek.
2.0 Bald-faced hornet: Rich, hearty, slightly crunchy. Similar to getting your hand mashed in a revolving door.
2.0 Yellowjacket: Hot and smoky, almost irreverent. Imagine W. C. Fields extinguishing a cigar on your tongue.
2.x Honey bee and European hornet: Like a matchhead that flips off and burns on your skin.
3.0 Red harvester ant: Bold and unrelenting. Somebody is using a drill to excavate your ingrown toenail.
3.0 Paper wasp: Caustic & burning. Distinctly bitter aftertaste. Like spilling a beaker of hydrochloric acid on a paper cut.
4.0 Pepsis wasp: Blinding, fierce, shockingly electric. A running hair drier has been dropped into your bubble bath.
4.0+ Bullet ant: Pure, intense, brilliant pain. Like fire-walking over flaming charcoal with a 3-inch rusty nail in your heel.
While the work lacks rigorous empirical criteria, even the most relentlessly analytical critics seem to aver that being stung by over 150 different species of arthtopods gives Schmidt a certain robust validity. The literary merit of the metaphors is certainly genuine (although one hopes that the good Doctor Schmidt never actually dropped a hair dryer into his bubble bath or let misanthropic vaudevillians torture him with fire). Personally I have only been stung by sweat bees, honey bees, and yellow jackets, so I cannot testify to the more esoteric sting ratings (thankfully–since yellowjacket stings nearly did me in), however something sounds completely right about the yellowjacket sting description. I recall a moment of warmth which metastasized almost immediately into a sour panic-inducing pain which spread through my arm and then my body.
In conclusion, I salute Justin Orvel Schmidt as a man of science and a masochistic poet/performance artist. If he claims that a bullet ant sting is the worst hymenopteran sting, I see no cause to contradict him and I never want to think about it again.
Hey, look at that! It’s a delicate pale blue butterfly (Maculinea arion) from Europe and northern Asia. What could this ethereal creature have to do with the horror theme which this blog has been following as a lead-up to Halloween? In fact, what does the butterfly have to do with any of Ferrebeekeeper’s regular themes? Butterflies are lepidopterans rather than the hymenoptera we favor here.
As it turns out—the butterfly has a lot to do with hymenopterans. Maculinea arion, or “the large blue butterfly ” to use its not-very-creative English name, may look innocent as a butterfly, but in its larval stage the creature is both appalling and remarkable. Alcon caterpillars are myrmecophiles—which means the caterpillars live in association with ants. Despite the Greek meaning of ”myrmecophile” (to love ants) the relationship is anything but loving on the part of the Alcon caterpillar–unless love is meant in the same way as “to love ham”.
M. arion caterpillars are relentless predators of ant larvae. The way they obtain this fragile foodstuff is remarkable for sophistication and ruthless guile. When a caterpillar hatches, it lives for a few days on wild thyme or marjoram plants. The caterpillar then secretes a sweet substance which attracts red ants which carry the larva back to their tunnels.
Inside the ant hive, the caterpillar produces pheromones and chemical scents which mimic those of the ant queen. It also scrapes a small ridge on its first segment to produce the same noise as the ant queen. The ants are deceived by the caterpillar’s mimicry and they take it to the chamber where they rear their own larvae. The ants wait on the caterpillar as though it were the hive monarch and they even feed it ant larvae—their own undeveloped siblings. Once it pupates, the butterfly scrapes the inside of its chrysalis to continue the deception. When the butterfly emerges from its cocoon the hapless ants carry it outside and guard it as its wings harden—whereupon the butterfly departs to mate and lay eggs on wild thyme or marjoram plants.
The Maculinea Arion is not the only caterpillar to make use of this strategy. The Phengaris alcon butterfly acts in almost exactly the same way. Here is where the story becomes impressively crazy. A parasitoid wasp, Ichneumon eumerus, feeds on the alcon caterpillar inside the ant hive. The wasp infiltrates the hive by spraying a pheromone which causes the ants to attack each other. While they are busy fighting, the wasp lays its eggs inside the caterpillar. The wasp larvae hatch into the body of the caterpillar (which the ants think of as a queen) and they eat the caterpillar host safe in the cloak of this deception.
If an ant hive becomes too saturated with caterpillars it will die and all three species inside the hive will likewise perish). The red ants in this scenario are constantly evolving new pheromone signals to outcompete the caterpillars and wasps—which in turn coevolve with the ants. It’s strange to imagine the troubling world of deception, chemical warfare, and carnage just beneath the ground.
Have you ever watched a tiny red ant scurrying through the backyard only to be astounded that the ant seems like a giant when it walks by some much smaller black ants? Such observations have always caused me to wonder how small insects could become. What are the smallest insects out there and just how tiny are they? The answer is actually astonishing, and, like most good answers it just brings up more questions. Most entomologists believe the tiniest living insects are the fairyflies, infinitesimally minute parasitoid wasps which live on or inside the tiny eggs of thrips(well, some fairflies also live inside the brains of other insects, but let’s not think about that right now). Fairyflies are smaller than many single cell organisms like paramecia, amoebas, and euglenas. Dicopomorpha echmepterygis, a wasp from Costa Rica, is an astonishing .13 millimeters in length. Although many of these wasps fly, they are so tiny that they don’t have conventional wings: some of the smaller specimens have long cilia-like hairs which they use to row through the air (the fluid dynamics of which are considerably different for creatures so small).
In fact the wasps are so tiny that the millions of individual cells which make up their tissues and organs have to be very miniscule indeed. In fact, according to physics, the brains of fairyflies should not work. Many of the neural axons are smaller than 0.1 micrometre in diameter (and the smallest axons were a mere 0.045 μm). At such sizes, the electrical action of axons should not work properly. An article on Newscientist describes the basic problem:
…according to calculations by Simon Laughlin of the University of Cambridge and colleagues, axons thinner than 0.1 μm simply shouldn’t work. Axons carry messages in waves of electrical activity called action potentials, which are generated when a chemical signal causes a large number of channels in a cell’s outer membrane to open and allow positively charged ions into the axon. At any given moment some of those channels may open spontaneously, but the number involved isn’t enough to accidentally trigger an action potential, says Laughlin – unless the axon is very thin.
So how do the wasps continue to fly around and parasitize the eggs of other creatures if the electrical impulses of their brains do not work? German researchers speculate that the axons of wasp brains work mechanically rather than electrically. The tiny axons touch each other physically instead of by means of electrical action. If this is correct it means the wasps are analogue creatures with little clockwork minds! If they were any larger or more complex, this would not work, but because of their small size and simple drives, they can manage to operate with slow-moving machine-like brains.
Voila, allow me to present Aleiodes gaga, a parasitoid wasp, which along with 178 other species, was discovered in the cloud rain forests of Thailand as part of a new biological survey seeking new life forms. The drab little 5mm wasp is named after the flamboyant New York singer songwriter Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta (who rose to international superstardome under the stage name of “Lady Gaga”. The science/futurist website i09 somewhat cynically remarks, “As to why the researchers chose to “honor” Lady Gaga in this way is not entirely clear (they’re likely seeking attention — in which case the name is wholly appropriate).”
The remarkable aspect of the survey is that the new species were swiftly identified and categorized by DNA barcode rather than through traditional taxonomic means. The team used a fragment of mitochondrial DNA to identify the various invertebrates which it discovered. However, the new methodology has critics in the world of scholarly taxonomy, who lament that spotting arbitrary genetic differences is replacement for actually understanding a creature’s morphology, anatomy.
Scientists do not know about the habits of the gaga wasp, but they know that it is a parasitoid wasp, a class of hymenopterans which provide a useful biological check against various diseases, blights, and swarms. When malicious insects attack certain plants, the plants release specific chemicals which attract particular species of wasps (which then prey on the offending beetle, ant, larva, or whatever). A great many species of plants have particular wasps affiliated with them (since the wasp and the plant coevolved to meet each other’s needs). Although such wasps provide an incalculable boon for both domestic and wild plants of all sorts, they are also the fodder for horrified screaming (since they tend to use mind control to render victims into zombies, which the wasp larvae then devour from within).
Most likely the wasp finds some local caterpillar, paralyzes it with a sting to the head, and lays its eggs inside the hapless victim. When the wasp larvae awake they devour the still living caterpillar. So to recap, this wasp 1) was discovered by means of a controversial technique; 2) was named in a naked bid for publicity; and 3) lays eggs inside its prey’s head which subsequently cause aforementioned head to explode.
The aggressive drive and single minded focus which bees and wasps bring to creating and defending their hives have long drawn the attention of warriors, rulers, and merchants. There is a long history of bees as heraldic logos, military insignia, and as corporate logos and or mascots. Additionally, bees and hornets are surprisingly popular in the world of sports. Here is a miniature gallery of bees used as insignias or as mascots throughout the ages.
The Barberini were a bloodthirsty Italian aristocratic house from Florence.
The Barberini reached the apex of their power in the 17th century when Maffeo Barberini ascended to the throne of Saint Peter as Urban VIII (who was noted for melting down classic bronzes and having the birds in the Vatican garden poisoned).
Napoleon was also a fan of industrious bees. Closely looking at his coat of arms reveals that the red cloak framing the eagle shield is embroidered with bees. Not only do the bees represent hard work, ferocity, and fecundity, they are meant to allude to the golden bees/cicadas found in the tomb of the Merovingian king Childeric I, who founded the French throne in 457.
Bees and hornets are also favored by more contemporary soldiers.
My personal favorite of all bee-themed logos is the Seabees logo which was designed in the war year of 1942 and has remained unchanged since then. The Seabees are the Naval Construction forces, who were (and are) expected to build critical military infrastructure like airstrips and docks even under fire. Their motto is “Construimus, Batuimus“ (“We build, We fight!”) and the pugnacious bee on their logo reflects this with his machine gun, wrench, and hammer.
In the US Air Force one of the prominent all-weather, multi-role fighter jets is the F/A-18 Hornet and a number of badges represent the fighting elan of the men and women who fly and service them (like this badge showing a hornet beating up a tomcat).
Beyond the manor and the battlefield, there are numerous corporate bees and hornets.
The New Orleans hornets are a professional basketball team. The fierce hornet has been elided with the city’s trademark fleur de lis.
The honey nut cheerio bee has been hard-selling honey flavored oat cereal for General Mills for long years. Here the bee is pictured wobbling in space time as he annoys a professional wrestler.
The Green hornet is a comic book hero who dresses up like a stinging insect and makes his Asian manservant fight crime.
The Bumble Bee man is a long-suffering Mexican-American TV star in the cartoon world of the Simpsons. The Bee man finally brings us to real world bee costumes which I think largely speak for themselves.
Velvet ants (Mutillidae) are not actually ants at all—the insects are classified as wasps even though female velvet ants do not have wings and appear to be tiny furry colorful ants. The Mutillidae family of wasps—which is made up of more than 3000 species– illustrates how closely wasps, bees, and ants are actually related. Male velvet ants look nothing like the females but are much larger winged creatures resembling other wasps. So great is the sexual dimorphism between the genders that it took entomologists a tremendously long time to pair the females with the males, and in many species the connection has still not been made by science. The genders do however both share a ridged structure called a stridulitrum, which can be rubbed or struck to produce chirps and squeaks for communication.
Female velvet ants are notable not just for their colorful fur but for their tremendously powerful sting which is so painful that they are nicknamed “cow killers.” Male velvet ants look like wasps but do not sting. The exoskeletons of velvet ants are tremendously hard to such an extent that some entomologists have reportedly found it difficult to drive pins through specimens. The dense hard coating helps the females invade the underground burrows of larger bees and wasps which the velvet ants sting and lay eggs on. When the velvet ant larvae hatch they feed on the paralyzed victims before metamorphosing into adult form and venturing into the world.
Velvet ants are found in warmer parts of the world particularly deserts. The majority of species are red and black but a variety of other colors are known including blue, gold, orange, and white. Unlike the social ants and termites, velvet ants are generally solitary, coming together only to reproduce with their strangely alien mates.
One of the delightful things about the hymenoptera—the wasps, bees, ants, and termites—is that many different species remain unknown to science. There are times when it seems frustrating to live in a world where most life forms have been categorized and collected, however the fact that some of the hymenoptera make their homes in the most isolated tropical wilderness means that vividly distinctive (and hitherto unknown) bees, wasps, and ants are found from time to time. Last week an entomologist exploring the remote rainforests of Sulawesi discovered a new species of immense predatory wasps with jaws longer than its front legs. The predatory wasp is shiny black with evil gothic barbs running along its abdomen. Although the wasp’s habits and behavior are still unknown, its size and its formidable jaws would seem to indicate that it is a predator.
Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology and professor of entomology at the University of California, Davis, discovered the wasp as part of a biodiversity expedition to the remote forests of Sulawesi. She plans to name the wasp after the Garuda, an eagle-like divine being from Hindu legend which is associated with speed and martial prowess (and with the constellation Aquila). The Garuda is admired and known in many different myths from Southeast Asia but it is particularly associated with Indonesia—and has become something of a national symbol
Sulawesi, the fourth largest island of Indonesia has long been an ecological treasure trove thanks to multiple isolated peninsulas (complicated geology has given the island has an unlikely shape), impassible mountains, and huge wet forests located only a few degrees from the equator.