12.12.12: the dirty dozen

{twelve more snippets of amy stewart's marvelous wicked bugs: the louse that conquered napoleon's army & other diabolical insects*}

01 "The Hybrid Insect Micro-Electo-Mechanical System (HI-MEMS) seeks to implant computer chips inside caterpillars before they undergo metamorphosis into moths or butterflies. They hope to use that circuitry to remotely control the flight paths of insects so that they can someday be used to fly into enemy locations and transmit intelligence without ever being detected." (21)

02 "Mayans had been using [bees and wasps as weapons] since 2600 BC; their legends describe the use of human dummies with a gourd filled with stinging insects for a head.


One of the most intriguing uses of bees in warfare was recorded by a contemporary of Socrates named Xenophon. He described the use of poisoned hives in Greek warfare around 402 BC: 'All the soldiers ate of the combs, lost their senses, vomited, and were affected with purging, and none of them were able to stand upright; such as had eaten much were like mad-men, and some like persons at the point of death.' The soldiers had, apparently, been given beehives filled with the honey of bees that had feasted on rhododendron and azalea, plants that produce neurotoxins so potent that they remain active in the honey. Those who eat the honey succumb to honey intoxication, also called grayanotoxin poisoning."** (21-22)

03 "Pliny the Elder wrote in about 77 AD that the scorpion was 'a dangerous scourge, and had venom like that of the serpent; with the exception that its effects are far more painful, as the person who is stung will linger for three days before death ensues.' He added that the sting of a scorpion was 'invariably fatal to virgins, and nearly always so to matrons.' (23)

04 "In 1939 the London Zoo killed its black widow spiders, along with its venomous snakes and insects, as a precaution against the possibility of their being liberated during air raids." (44)

05 "Don't be fooled by the fact that [the puss caterpillar] looks just like a tiny Persian cat. The so-called flannel moth or asp moth is one of the most toxic caterpillars in North America. Anyone who rubs up against its long, silky golden-brown hairs will find those hairs embedded under the skin, where they cause severe burning pain, a rash, and blisters." (50)

06 "'One day,' [Charles] Darwin wrote, 'on tearing off some old bark, I saw two rare beetles, and seized one in each hand; then I saw a third and new kind, which I could not bear to lose, so that I popped the one which I held in my right hand into my mouth. Alas! It ejected some intensely acrid fluid, which burnt my tongue so that I was forced to spit the beetle out, which was lost, as was the third one.'" (53)

07 "Although it sounds too horrible to be anything more than an urban legend, in fact, cases of German cockroaches crawling into people's ears and getting stuck there have been well documented in medical literature. Emergency room doctors can pour oil in the ear to drown cockroaches, but often have a hard time extracting them afterward. Some doctors swear by a squirt of lidocaine, which irritates the roach so much that it can send it running out of the ear and across the room." (88)

08 "[P]erhaps their most horrifying quality is the way in which aphids reproduce: some species are actually capable of "telescoping generations" in which one female aphid contains within her the beginnings of another youngster, which is herself already pregnant with yet another generation." (95)

09 "Justin Schmidt, an entomologist who studies venomous stings, created the Schmidt Sting Pain Index to quantify the pain inflicted by ants and other stinging creatures. His surprisingly poetic descriptions*** give some order to the hierarchy of ant stings as compared to those of bees and wasps:

  1.0 Sweat bee: Light, ephemeral, almost fruity. A tiny spark has singed a single hair on your arm.
  1.2 Fire ant: Sharp, sudden, mildly alarming. Like walking across a shag carpet & reaching for the light switch.
  1.8 Bullhorn acacia ant: A rare, piercing, elevated sort of pain. Someone has fired a staple into your cheek.
  2.0 Bald-faced hornet: Rich, hearty, slightly crunchy. Similar to getting your hand mashed in a revolving door.
  2.0 Yellowjacket: Hot and smoky, almost irreverent. Imagine W.C. Fields extinguishing a cigar on your tongue.


  4.0 Tarantula hawk: Blinding, fierce, shockingly electric. A running hair drier has been dropped into your bubble bath.
  4.0+ Bullet ant: Pure, intense, brilliant pain. Like firewalking over flaming charcoal with a 3-inch rusty nail in your heel." (137-138)

10 "A team of researchers in Venezuela found one of these giant centipedes hanging upside down from a cave wall, happily munching away on a small bat. After observing the same behavior several times, they realized that the centipedes were hanging from the cave by their last few legs and catching bats in midair as they flew by, demonstrating a rather frightening level of forethought and ingenuity." (146)

11 "A French research team recently discovered that mosquitoes are more attracted to beer drinkers." (165)

12 "And then there was the tarantula pie. [Would-be murderess] Carole [Hargis] kept a pet tarantula and at first she considered [killing her husband] by putting the hairy spider in bed with him, hoping he would get bitten. But then she had a better idea: she removed the tarantula's venom sac and hid it in a blackberry pie. Mr. Hargis's luck held out a while longer: he took a few bites of pie but never touched the venom. It was beginning to seem like he was invincible.


[T]he bite of a tarantula is really no worse than that of a wasp or bee. It will certainly sting—in fact, scientists recently discovered that the bite of the West Indian tarantla Psalmopoeus cambridgei goes to work on nerve cells with the same mechanism employed by habanero peppers." (234-235)

13 {bonus, non-insect-book-related} joe went out to put some trash in the chute last night and saw a young guy he didn't know leaning against the table outside our apartment door. when the guy saw him, he jumped up guiltily and disappeared into the stairwell. joe called down to our doorman to say there was a random guy on our floor. "oh," said the doorman, "him? he's drunk and hiding from his grandma."

*highly recommended; everyone should ride the f train with a book cover that shouts BEWARE! THE SORDID LIVES OF BUGS BEHAVING BADLY.

**this came up at a holiday party on saturday night, when my friend dan told me several useful things and i exclaimed that i would have to tell him several things about bees in exchange for what i had just learned. ah, said he, but my parents have kept bees for years, so you can't tell me much about bees i don't know. i said, well.

***combining the insouciant tones of an upscale wine list and the conclusions of choose your own adventure plot lines.

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