Constable: Insect Fear Film Festival features 'King of Sting'

  • Speaking at the University of Illinois online Insect Fear Film Festival, entomologist Justin Schmidt came up with his Schmidt Pain Scale for Stinging Insects, rating everything from the mild sting of sweat bees to the excrutiating sting of bullet ants.

    Speaking at the University of Illinois online Insect Fear Film Festival, entomologist Justin Schmidt came up with his Schmidt Pain Scale for Stinging Insects, rating everything from the mild sting of sweat bees to the excrutiating sting of bullet ants. Courtesy of Justin Schmidt

  • A paper wasp is just one of the stinging insects starring in this year's 39th annual Insect Fear Film Festival, which is available free and online Saturday.

    A paper wasp is just one of the stinging insects starring in this year's 39th annual Insect Fear Film Festival, which is available free and online Saturday. Courtesy of Edward M Hsieh

  • The 39th annual Insect Fear Film Festival is set for Saturday. The online event is free.

    The 39th annual Insect Fear Film Festival is set for Saturday. The online event is free. Courtesy of Entomology Graduate Student Association

  • Jon Tetlie, president of the group hosting the Insect Fear Film Festival with the theme of "Venom," says stings from bees and wasps are worth the chance to do entomological research.

    Jon Tetlie, president of the group hosting the Insect Fear Film Festival with the theme of "Venom," says stings from bees and wasps are worth the chance to do entomological research. Courtesy of Entomology Graduate Student Association

  • Always digging in the dirt as a kid growing up in Skokie, Sara Wilson says mosquitoes inspired her to go for her master's degree in entomology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

    Always digging in the dirt as a kid growing up in Skokie, Sara Wilson says mosquitoes inspired her to go for her master's degree in entomology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Courtesy of Entomology Graduate Student Association

 
 
Posted2/22/2022 5:30 AM

For those of us who got the first vaccine shot, the second vaccine shot, the flu shot, the booster shot and all those other shots throughout our life, we owe a bit of gratitude to stinging insects.

"They are the inventors of the biological syringe," says Justin Schmidt, an University of Arizona entomologist and headliner for 39th annual Insect Fear Film Festival, sponsored by the Entomology Graduate Student Association at 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 the theme "Venom," was founded by May Berenbaum, head of the UIUC entomology department.

Whatever insects appear on screen probably will have stung Schmidt, author of "The Sting of the Wild: The Story of the Man Who Got Stung for Science." He figures he's been stung more than a thousand times by 83 or so different types of insects.

He used that experience to develop his celebrated Schmidt Pain Scale for Stinging Insects, which has taken him from scientific conferences to Jimmy Kimmel Live! Schmidt says the sting of the common sweat bee, with a pain rating of 1, is "light and ephemeral, almost fruity," as if "a tiny spark has singed 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, fierce, shockingly electric" and feels as if "a running hair dryer has just been dropped into your bubble bath," Schmidt says.

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But the worst stings from wasps generally last two or three minutes.

In comparison, "by far the bullet ant is the worst," Schmidt says.

Not only does it feel "like walking over flaming charcoal with a 3-inch nail embedded in your heel," but the pain lasts 12 to 36 hours, Schmidt says. "A bullet ant wants to make sure you don't come back again."

Schmidt will kick off the online fest at 5 p.m. Saturday. While admission is free, viewers must register in advance at publish.illinois.edu/uiuc-egsa/ifff. Of the more than two dozen films featured in the festival, "a lot of them focus on bees and wasps, but there also are spiders in there," says Jon Tetlie, 29, president of the Entomology Graduate Student Association.

The films range from comic shorts, such as some with The Three Stooges, to more serious fare looking at the life-threatening anaphylaxis reactions some people have from stings. But they also show "the positive side of venoms," Tetlie says, noting that researchers are looking at bee venom as a way to treat cancer.

Sara Wilson, 24, who grew up in Skokie and serves as treasurer of the Entomology Graduate Student Association, was always fascinated with insects. "I was the kid always digging in the dirt, collecting cicadas, and that kind of stuff," 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 fear what you don't understand," she adds.

Even the scariest of ants, wasps, hornet and bees are fascinating.

"I'll talk about the beauty of stinging insects," Schmidt says.

Still, given that this year's festival focuses on venom, and the stinging insects that deliver it, there is one huge advantage to hosting the events during a pandemic. The Insect Petting Zoo -- featuring ants, bees and wasps -- is 100% virtual.

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