Don’t fear a book by its cover

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I have a hard time looking at this photo of a Japanese Giant Hornet. (Photo by Hornet Boy 1970/Wikimedia)

I have a confession to make. I have a phobia of wasps and bees. Basically most of the order Hymenoptera, though ants bother me less- probably because they don’t fly (most of the time.) It’s a mild phobia. I don’t have the full-fledged panic attacks and disabling symptoms associated with severe phobias, though I have been known to exhibit ridiculous behavior, such as running, flailing and squealing, in the presence of bees and wasps.

I also have an irrational fear of hyenas. Hymenoptera, hyena. . . do I simply have an aversion to animals whose names start with “HY”? Nope. I think hyraxes are adorable and have neutral feelings towards tiny freshwater hydrozoans in the genus Hydra.

My fear of hyenas most likely stems from an experience I had in Tarangire National Park, Tanzania, when hyenas came into our camp site at night. I had taken my weekly dose of Larium, an anti-malarial drug notorious for sometimes causing bizarre dreams, anxiety, and in extreme cases, hallucinations.

I was awoken from a nightmare involving giant crabs by the noisy hyenas. They were just looking for stray bits of food, like a gang of 120 pound raccoons. But their garrulous snarling, squealing and loud breathing were hair raising even for my fellow campers who were not tripping on Larium that evening. I had also recently read a story in the New Yorker by Joanna Greenfield which detailed her attack by a captive spotted hyena. Great story, but don’t read it before you go camping in Africa. Seriously– don’t.

These irrational fears embarrass me. The hyena fear is less embarrassing because fear of a large, intelligent, predatory mammal that is fully capable of eating you and will give it a try if you look easy, is really not that irrational.

But a fear of wasps, bees and some ants is genuinely embarrassing because I am a biologist, I should know better. I hung out with lots of folks who study wasps and ants in graduate school and they taught me all sorts of cool things about their favorite insects. I learned about the evolution of eusociality, haplodiploidy, and all that fascinating stuff. (Back to hyenas for a moment. Female hyenas have pseudo-penises. Also fascinating, but doesn’t make them any less scary to me.)

I know that the likelihood that I would be killed or seriously injured by a stinging insect is very small. I am not allergic to bee stings. I am much more likely to be killed by a heatwave. I know that the mosquito, Aedes aegypti, is arguably the most dangerous animal in the world.

It’s not like I don’t encounter wasps and bees frequently. I enjoy the outdoors and spend much of my recreation time hiking, camping etc. I should be used to them by now. I have been stung on seven separate occasions. I know what it feels like. Yes, it hurts, but I have endured much worse pain.

I am not scared of many other creatures that people commonly fear. I enjoy catching (non-venomous) snakes with my 6 year-old son- a herpetology enthusiast. There are several black widow spiders living in my yard and I value their contribution to cricket control. I even touched a shark once while snorkeling. (It was a small, docile nurse shark resting in a coral cave, but you get my point.)

Yet hymenoptera– wasps especially– give me the heebie-jeebies. I have tried reasoning with myself. I know their evolution is fascinating, they serve important ecological functions etc., etc. Still they give me the creeps. If a wasp gets into my house and another adult is home, I will ask that person to get it out. If it falls to me to squash it, I will do the deed, but it will make me physically shudder. I will throw the body away but eye the trash can warily for the next couple of hours. If a wasp is trapped in my car, I WILL be pulling over and exiting the vehicle.

I am proud to have made some progress. I am much less fearful of honey bees than I used to be, and I will confidently capture and release them outside if they stray into my house. But there is no way in hell I will ever take up beekeeping or approach a wild honey bee colony. Africanized or “killer bees” are the stuff of my nightmares.

Speaking of nightmares, about 10 years ago I saw a segment in a nature documentary on the Japanese giant hornet that I have still not fully recovered from. I have trouble even looking at pictures of them. If I saw a dead giant hornet pinned and dusty in an insect collection, you’d have to pay me a large sum to touch it. If I ever had the opportunity to travel to Japan, these insects would make me think twice.

We’re admonished not to judge a book by its cover, but we do. (If we didn’t, a lot of graphic artists would be out of work.) So you can imagine how I felt when I received this book in the mail.


My brain sees this cover and says “Avoid! Avoid! Avoid!” There is a good reason for that. The wasp’s aposematic coloration, which is echoed in the jacket design, is intended as a warning to “stay away.” And the book explains how the hymenopterans’ sting– the danger that this coloration warns us about– allows these insects to exploit diverse environment and resources, and develop complex societies.

The book was sent to me by a publicist at Johns Hopkins University Press, which published it. I had recently written a post for Entomology Today about a study on harvester ants in which I quoted the book’s author Dr. Justin Schmidt. This caught the generous publicist’s eye and she asked if I’d be interested in a copy. I was flattered. No one ever offered me a free book, except when they were trying to religiously convert me.

Of course I’d like a copy! Who can turn down a free book? I realized she probably wanted me to read it and write something about it, but I put that out of my mind. The book arrived and it sat on my nightstand– upside down so I didn’t have to look at the wasp on the cover.

But if I do occasionally (frequently?) procrastinate, in the end I am generally dutiful. So I read “The Sting of the Wild” and I enjoyed it. Schmidt, an entomologist at the Southwestern Biological Institute, is an excellent writer. He can write clear, engaging explanations of sting evolution and venom chemistry, as well as spin a good yarn about his adventures collecting stinging insects. I enjoyed his dry, judiciously applied, wit.

Schmidt is most famous for the “Schmidt Sting Pain Index” which is published in its entirety for the first time in this book. He has painstakingly (emphasis on the pain) documented the stings he has received from various species of hymenoptera. In many cases, he has actively sought stings from certain species in order to add them to his index. The pain delivered by each sting is given a quantitative rating of 1-4, as well as a qualitative, often poetic, description. Some examples:

Western yellowjacket: Hot and smoky, almost irreverent. Imagine W.C. Fields extinguishing a cigar on your tongue. Pain level 2.

Dasymutilla klugii (a huge velvet ant): Explosive and long lasting, you sound insane as you scream. Hot oil from the deep fryer spilling over your entire hand. Pain level 3.

So is Schmidt just a sadomasochist with literary flair and a thing for collecting data? What would compel someone to get stung on purpose in order to make an index of pain? Science would.

If you quantify something, you can compare it to other somethings. Schmidt’s Sting Pain Index allows him to make and test predictions about insect’s stings. Why does a harvester ant’s sting (pain level 3) hurt so much, but the sting of a large, intimidating-looking cicada killer wasp (pain level 1-1.5) hurt less than the common honey bee? The answer has to do with their life history, the predators they face and the food they eat.

Stinging hymenoptera don’t want to sting you. In fact, they generally give you fair warning to stay away. Aposematic coloring and patterns of high contrast yellow, white, red and black are just one of the signals these insects use to say “leave me alone.” Schmidt also describes auditory warning signals, including loud buzzing and stridulations, as well as olfactory messages.

(This information actually made me feel better about my fear. I’m not irrational, I’m just a good listener. I am simply respecting stinging insects’ requests that I stay away.)

So take it from someone who didn’t initially want to read “The Sting of the Wild” but found it captivating (and a bit spine-tingling)– this book is worth your time. Justin Schmidt is a science hero in my eyes (I would love to know what gives him the creeps.) Creating a “Sting Pain Index,” would be for me a task akin to navigating Dante’s nine circles of hell.

This is a man who has methodically documented the sting of a tarantula wasp (pain level 4). His advice if you are unfortunate enough to be stung by this giant iridescent insect is to “lie down and scream”:

The pain is so debilitating and excruciating that the victim is at risk of further injury by tripping in a hole or over an object in the path and then falling onto a cactus or into a barbed-wire fence. Such is the sting pain that almost nobody can maintain normal coordination or cognitive control to prevent accidental injury. Screaming is satisfying and helps reduce attention to the pain of the sting.

Schmidt endured that sting and many, many others. And he did it for science.

Don’t fear a book by its cover