For those of us who have had the first shot, the second shot, the flu shot, the booster, and all those other shots throughout our lives, we owe biting insects a bit of gratitude.
“They are the inventors of the biological syringe”, says Justin SchmidtUniversity of Arizona entomologist and headliner of 39th Annual Fear of Insects Film Festivalsponsored by the Entomology Graduate Student Association of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Insects developed the process about 120 million years before the medical community.
The film festival, which this year has “Venom” as its theme, was founded by May Berenbaum, head of UIUC’s entomology department.
Whatever insects appear on screen will likely have stung Schmidt, author of “The Sting of the Wild: The Story of the Man Who Got Stung for Science.” He is said to have been bitten over a thousand times by about 83 different types of insects.
He used this experience to develop his famous Schmidt pain scale for biting insects, which took him from scientific lectures to Jimmy Kimmel Live! Schmidt says the honey bee sting, with a pain rating of 1, is “light and fleeting, almost fruity”, as if “a little spark had burned a single hair on your arm”.
At the other end of the scale, with a rating of 4, is the sting of a wasp known as a tarantula hawk, which is “blinding, ferocious, incredibly electric” and feels like ” a running hair dryer has just been thrown into your bubble bath,” Schmidt says.
But the worst wasp stings usually last two or three minutes.
By comparison, “the bullet ant is by far the worst,” says Schmidt.
Not only does it feel like you’re “walking on flaming charcoal with a 3-inch nail driven into your heel,” but the pain lasts for 12 to 36 hours, Schmidt says. “A bullet ant wants to make sure you don’t come back.”
Schmidt will kick off the online festival at 5 p.m. Saturday. Although admission is free, viewers must pre-register at publish.illinois.edu/uiuc-egsa/ifff. Of the more than two dozen films shown at the festival, “a lot of them focus on bees and wasps, but there are also spiders in there,” says Jon Tetlie, 29, president of the Entomology Graduate Student Association.
Films range from comedic shorts, like some with The Three Stooges, to more serious fare examining the life-threatening anaphylactic reactions some people have from stings. But they also show “the positive side of venoms,” says Tetlie, noting that researchers are considering bee venom as a way to treat cancer.
Sara Wilson, 24, who grew up in Skokie and is treasurer of the Entomology Graduate Student Association, has always been fascinated by insects. “I was the kid who was always digging in the dirt, picking up cicadas and that sort of thing,” she says.
A job working with mosquitoes “really sparked a love of mosquitoes and entomology in me,” says Wilson, who is working on a master’s degree in entomology.
“It’s easy to be afraid of what you don’t understand,” she adds.
Even the scariest ants, wasps, hornets and bees are fascinating.
“I’m going to talk about the beauty of biting insects,” Schmidt says.
Still, given that this year’s festival focuses on venom and the stinging insects that deliver it, there’s a huge upside to holding the events during a pandemic. The Insect Petting Zoo, with ants, bees and wasps, is 100% virtual.