“Stay away, don't mess with me” is a suggested ad from a stinging insect to its predators.
If ever you were stung by a bee and offered the chance to perform a scientific analysis of the pain intensity produced by a variety of stinging insects, would you accept the challenge? Like me, most would probably not be interested. But entomologist Justin O. Schmidt carried out such a study on 83 species of ants, bees, and wasps, resulting in his “Pain Scale for Stinging Insects,” which rates the pain of each sting on a scale of 1 to 4. Each pain also has a brief description, using humor to compare the pain to other unpleasant experiences: “Someone has fired a staple into your cheek” (bullhorn acacia ant); “Your fingertip has been slammed by a car door” (California carpenter bee); and “You know what cattle feel when they are branded” (golden paper wasp). All paint pungent pictures of the power of pain, and the author crafts a vivid, detailed analysis of the nature of pain.
Using his lifetime of science experiences, Schmidt shares brilliant examples of science as a process of discovery. He recounts many experiments, such as how he taught a hive of honeybees that he wasn't a predatory threat to them. One of his graduate students, wanting to learn more about the pain intensity of honeybee stings, conducted a clever experiment to determine if this intensity was the same all over his body. Selecting 25 body locations, ranging from his head to his arms, back, thighs, feet, and even his private parts, he allowed a controlled group of bees to sting him in each area three times a day for six weeks. Needless to say, he definitely learned where the stings hurt the worst.
There is much to learn from this book other than insect stinging. There are fascinating accounts of the anatomy, physiology, life history, social and reproductive behavior, venom analysis, and impacts on humans of a variety of these six-legged pain producers. The writing is so engaging that it seems like the author knows the insects personally. The book also includes the ecological importance and evolution of insects. Schmidt shares a thought-provoking story of Charles Darwin's concern that when an insect leaves its stinger in the skin of a victim, it results in the insect's death and that this would provide strong evidence against his theory of natural selection. Another story illustrates the impact of honeybees in a legal proceeding. A woman “got the munchies,” bought a cake, ate it, and had an allergic reaction to the sting of a dead yellow jacket in the frosting. Schmidt explains how he testified at a court trial that resulted in the wasp and her lawyers winning.
Considerable information concerning the lives and behavior of organisms other than insects is woven into the text, providing much charm and value to the narrative. Elephants often consume trees enclosing bees' nests and may destroy the nests. Bees fight back by aiming stinging attacks at the pachyderms' eyes and noses. Bears, known for their love of honey, also enjoy eating the protein-rich grubs of yellow jackets. False black widow spiders spin their webs over colony entrances of harvester ants and then wait for lunch.
At one point, Schmidt describes a frustrated scientist's reaction to another scientist's writing as “The best method of dealing with this volume is to disregard entirely the statements of the author.” That certainly cannot be said about The Sting of the Wild. With its well-researched, colorful, entertaining, comprehensive, and often witty narrative, this book is packed with fascinating information and is well worth reading. It is appropriate for college biology courses, especially entomology, and may even appeal to high school students with a strong interest in biology. Aside from the 10-page “pain scale,” it includes bibliographic references for all of the chapters and a comprehensive index. While much of the text is concerned with painful experiences, reading it is the direct opposite. It is a most pleasurable experience.