"No Sting Too Painful" for "Bug Attack" Scientist

By John Roach
for National Geographic News
Updated March 30, 2004
They swim through swamps, crawl over logs, buzz through the air, and burrow under skin. They sting and bite, spread disease, and devour rotting flesh. Without them, life as we know it would cease to exist.

In a statement promoting a documentary film on the Earth's most impressive and interesting insects, Phil DeVries said, "It is hardly a secret that insects make the world a safer, homier place." DeVries is director of the Center for Biodiversity Studies at the Milwaukee Public Museum and an entomologist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

The program, Bug Attack—which aired on the National Geographic Channel—maintains that while many bugs have developed weapons and attack strategies that strike fear in the hearts of humans, they are an essential part of the ecosystem that should be embraced, not scorned. (National Geographic News is part of the National Geographic Society, which is part owner of the National Geographic Channel.)

DeVries tows his film crew around the world as he confronts creepy crawlers in the anaconda-infested swamps of Venezuela, the parched Sonoran Desert in the U.S. West, and the dank sewers of New York City. He lets scorpions bite him and fire ants sting him, and he uses himself as bait for bloodsucking leeches.

"To a bug fanatic like me, there's no sewer too dark, no swamp too dangerous, and no sting too painful if it brings me face to face with one more incredible bug," DeVries said.

Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology at the University of California, Davis, said that there is no reason for humans to be afraid of insects. Rather, we should learn to appreciate all that they do to make Earth a habitable planet.

"If we didn't have insects, we'd be up to our hips in dead stuff and wood debris," Kimsey said. "Insects are the single most important recyclers in the environment."

Insect Fascination

DeVries said he has been fascinated by the insect world since he was a young child of four or five. His curiosity as to how they crawl, fly, and eat; what they are named; and what they do for a living allowed him to overcome the insect phobia common to most humans.

"Once you have seen how insects are constructed, how they behave, or simply used your eyes to look at them, really look at them, then many other things lose their ability to hold your attention," DeVries said.

Hooking up with National Geographic to traipse around the world in search of the bugs that give humans the most nightmares and learn what makes them such incredible survivors was a dream assignment.

The most fascinating encounter for DeVries during filming was with the giant centipede Scolopendra gigantea, a popular insect in the pet trade because it grows up to 10 inches (25 centimeters) long and is believed to have bitten humans.

"Despite being a large, noticeable predator and a species bought and sold in the pet trade, no one has ever bothered to ask what Scolopendra does for a living in the wild," DeVries said. "How long does it live? What exactly does it feed on? How far does it move? Does it have territories? Basic stuff."

The most scared the intrepid explorer got during filming was when his crew convinced him to don a protective suit with a visor before he encountered the giant Japanese hornet (Vespa mandarina japonica).

"I had been told it was going to really be bad when you get near the nest—swarms, stings, attacks—and that collectively they were some sort of killing machine with an attitude. You know, over-the-top hyperbole," DeVries said.

It turned out that DeVries only felt trapped by the suit as he gazed at the hornets and wondered about their lifestyle and how they fit into the Japanese island environment.

Living With Insects

Scientists believe that insects outnumber humans by more than a billion to one and that the world contains thousands of insect secrets waiting to be discovered. What is known about insects is that they are essential for ecosystems to thrive.

Insects serve as pollinators for food crops, nutritious sustenance for a range of birds and mammals, and decomposers of plant and animal products.

"Plants and insects are inextricably linked and represent a potent force that allows life as we know it to exist on planet Earth," DeVries said.

Kimsey said that humans need to learn to tolerate insects. Programs to rid cities of mosquitoes that spread West Nile virus or fleas, ticks, and lice that are vectors of disease may be worthwhile, she said. The effect, though, may be primarily psychological.

"It makes people feel better," Kimsey said. "A lot of things marketed to control insects are just scams, ways to separate you from $20."

Rather, DeVries recommends that people develop the same curiosity that he did as young child: Become aware of insects, learn from them, and learn to respect them.

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