A fascinating exposition on the evolution of the insect sting, by an intrepid scientist who has spent decades observing insects in their natural habitats on six continents. Author Justin Schmidt is best known for inventing the Schmidt Scale of Pain to measure the relative efficacy of insect stings, providing biologists with a basis for developing testable hypotheses about the evolution of insect stings. This account is packed with details about the lives of the six-legged fellow travelers we share the planet with. The blue digger wasp uses its stinger to paralyze a cricket, and then lays an egg atop its victim, which revives a few minutes later and crawls back into its burrow, whereupon the larva hatches out and eats its hapless host alive, thereby saving mom the trouble of digging a burrow for her little one. The dwarf honeybee has invented a remarkable method of defending itself against the depredations of the much larger giant hornet: hundreds of dwarf honeybees will cluster in a ball around the invading hornet and then vibrate their wings muscles to generate enough heat to cook their would-be attacker to death.
We learn about the harvester ant, which boasts the most toxic venom of any insect (35 times more deadly than rattlesnake venom) and the dreaded “cow-killer” wasp, which escapes predation by means of a combination of its massively painful sting, its rock-hard exoskeleton, and its powerful legs, which it uses to escape the grasp of attackers. We learn how to avoid being stung when approaching a hive full of honeybees (they recognize us by the smell of our breath, so hold your breath as long as you can and turn aside to exhale), and what to do when stung by the aforementioned “cow-killer” wasp (the sting is horribly painful but carries no lasting ill effects, so just lie down and scream, thereby avoiding the risk of hurting oneself further by dashing about in a fog of pain).
We also learn about the nineteenth-century British gentleman who eliminated yellowjackets from his estate, which subsequently was overrun by a plague of flies, and about the destructive and ultimately futile attempts to contain the spread of the fire ant, a struggle Harvard biologist Edward O Wilson has dubbed “the Viet Nam of entomology.”
All this is leavened by Schmidt’s reminiscences about his boyhood as a budding young naturalist growing up in rural Pennsylvania and the personality quirks of his fellow biologists. The author’s presence is constant but never overbearing, a seasoned guide initiating the reader into the arcana of the insect world. Terms and concepts are explained in plain English. This book is heartily recommended for anyone interested in learning more about the natural world.