News desk | ILLINOIS

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. “One of the things people fear about insects is their sting.

This year’s theme Fear of Insects Film Festival is “Venom”, and the festival will feature poisonous insects and other arthropods such as spiders and centipedes. The 39th festival will take place on February 26 at 5 p.m. and, like last year, it will be entirely online. The festival is free but prior registration is required.

The theme seemed timely with so much news about the COVID-19 vaccine, said May Berenbaumthe founder of the film festival and the head of the entomology service at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

“There was a lot of talk about being stung. With 10 billion doses of vaccines delivered worldwide, that’s a lot of talk. People may not know that the hypodermic syringe was inhaled by a biting insect,” she said.

Insects also look great on camera.

“Bitting insects are often characterized by bright warning colors — yellow and black, or black and red stripes. They advertise the fact that they are dangerous,” Berenbaum said.

A potter wasp, also called a mason wasp. This type of wasp can sting people, but it is extremely rare.

Photo by Edward M. Hsieh


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The theme was a good choice for an online festival. The Children’s Zoo presents the star insects every year, and in a typical in-person setting, organizers couldn’t allow guests to handle biting insects.

Special guest Justin Schmidt will describe how painful a bite from these insects can be. Schmidt is an entomologist at the Southwest Biological Institute in Tucson, Arizona, who developed the Schmidt’s Puncture Pain Index being bitten by a large number of insect species and recording evocative descriptions of the bites on a four-level pain scale.

The first level includes the sweat bee, whose sting is “light, fleeting, almost fruity. A little spark burned a single hair on your arm”, and the red fire ant, with a “sharp, sudden, slightly alarming”. Like stepping on a shag carpet and reaching for the light switch.

The West’s yellow jacket sting is level two: “Warm and smoky, almost irreverent.” Imagine WC Fields putting out a cigar on your tongue.

The level four bullet ant is said to be the most painful insect bite there is. Schmidt describes it as “pure, intense, shining pain. Like walking on flaming charcoal with a 3 inch nail driven into your heel.

Insects use stings for different reasons. Some are a defense mechanism. For example, the bee – a social and vegetarian insect – only stings to educate a predator, not to kill it, Berenbaum said. Bees usually only sting to protect their nest, she said.

Photo of a European hornet and a yellowjacket feeding on a cicada.

A European hornet (the largest insect on the left) and a yellow jacket (the smallest insect perched on the head capsule) feeding on a decapitated cicada.

Photo by Edward M. Hsieh


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Predatory insects use their stings to paralyze or immobilize their prey. Even ticks can produce anticoagulants to prevent blood clotting or neurotoxins to paralyze their hosts so they can continue feeding uninterrupted, Berenbaum said.

The stinger of bees, wasps, and ants is a modified egg-laying device, so only the females of the species sting. In a hive, only the queen lays eggs; worker bees are sterile and use the structure to defend themselves against enemies, she said.

Scorpions have stingers at the ends of their abdomen which are not egg-laying devices. Spiders release venom through their fangs, and some arachnids have no stinger at all – they spit venom from their mouths. Caterpillars also do not have a stinger. Instead, they have stinging hairs that break off when something brushes against them, leaving a sharp point, or spines that are connected to venom glands that embed themselves in the skin of potential enemies who come into contact. close with them, Berenbaum said.

The venoms secreted by the bites “are all cocktails of physiologically active compounds. Some induce pain, some kill cells and cause tissue death, and some spread agents, allowing venom to spread over a surface. The venoms can damage or destroy muscle tissue, cause cardiac arrhythmias and impair nervous system function,” Berenbaum said.

Photo of a paper wasp on a leaf.

A paper wasp.

Photo by Edward M. Hsieh


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The cinematographic program will offer animated and living short films as well as extracts from feature films, grouped according to three themes. The first group of film clips will show stings used for over-the-top comedic effect, often with individual insects wielding their stingers like swords or with swarms of stinging insects taking the shape of buzz saws.

The second group of films will show dramatic or horrifying reactions to stings, including anaphylaxis, with characters swelling to enormous proportions after being stung. The clips will include the most famous spider bite of them all, showing how Peter Parker became Spider-Man.

The final group will feature poisonous insect reality videos, with high-speed videos showing how stingers inject venom, educational videos showing how to use an Epi-Pen to stop allergic reactions to stings, and a video series illustrating the medical uses of venom and stings, including apitherapy, or the use of bee products, including venom, to treat various illnesses or injuries.

Also at the festival:

Tommy McElrathcurator of the Illinois Natural History Survey insect collection, will tour the survey insect collection focusing on venomous species.

Entomology students will present the virtual zoo with poisonous insects and spiders. A graduate student has volunteered to be stung live on Zoom and explain his reaction in real time.

Ventriloquist Hannah Leskosky – Berenbaum’s daughter – and her talking bee, Buzz, will discuss stings and venoms from the perspective of male bees.

bugscopea scanning electron microscope Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technologywill show magnified poisonous insects being imaged in real time.

The winners of the annual art contest will be announced and images of the art will be posted online. The festival will also include a live session on biting insect themed crafts.