"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.

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