CHAMPAIGN – The 39th annual Insect Fear Film Festival is dedicated to one of the last frontiers of arthropod fear: venom.
The University of Illinois Department of Entomology has invited a guest speaker who is probably the world’s authority on stings: Justin Schmidt, an entomologist at the Southwest Biological Institute in Tucson, Arizona.
Schmidt is famous for his sting pain index, first systematized in an article he wrote in 1983. The index ranks insect bites on a scale of 0 – imperceptible to humans – to 4 – only for the most painful bites, like that of the ball. ant.
Years in the field inform Schmidt’s bite ratings, which he sometimes accompanies with connoisseur-like flavor profiles.
The sting of an urban digger bee, on level 1, is, in Schmidt’s words, “almost pleasant; a lover just bit your earlobe a little too hard.
At level 2, the sting of the termite ant feels like “the debilitating pain of a migraine contained in the tip of your finger”. The sting of the warrior wasp is one of the few to score a 4 on the pain rating.
It is “torture. You are chained in the flow of an active volcano. Why did I start this list? he wrote in his 2016 book “Sting of the Wild.”
He will speak virtually at 5 p.m. Saturday, kicking off a jam-packed evening of bug-crawling activities capped off by three acts of music videos and films featuring stings.
“Come feel the virtual burn!” says the promo.
Participants must register virtually. It’s free and hosted on the festival webpage at publish.illinois.edu/uiuc-egsa/ifff.
Ed Hsieh, a doctoral candidate in the entomology program who has attended the past six festivals, said this year‘s theme is, in his view, convenient to hold virtually.
“We’re able to show a few other things with poisonous insects that would be more problematic in a living environment,” he said.
For example, during a virtual “petty zoo” of various poisonous insects and spiders, one of his graduate student peers will get bitten, live on the Zoom event, and provide feedback on his reaction.
The festival may use the fear factor to attract an audience, but organizers hope attendees will come away with a better appreciation for the underlying natural mechanisms these creatures possess.
Venomous bites come in many forms, both offensive and defensive. Ants and bees use painful stings to ward off predators, while some wasps use paralyzing stings to capture prey for their young.
Venom is one of the few aspects of insects where fears could be grounded in truth, although the vast majority of insect bites are not fatal to humans in a single blow.
“There’s definitely a fear of the unknown or misunderstanding, because a lot of insects have a scary look that’s less visually appealing than, say, fuzzy mammals,” said UI PhD candidate Jon Tetlie. . “Once you dig deeper, learn a bit more about them, their natural history and physiology can be incredibly fascinating,”
Other events on the program on Saturday:
- A ventriloquist act by Hannah Leskosky, daughter of May Berenbaum, festival founder and head of the entomology department, and her bee puppet, Buzz.
- Tommy McElrath, curator of the Illinois Natural History Survey collection, will present the survey’s collection of venomous species.
- The public will see ultra-magnified insects through the Beckman Institute’s “Bugscope” electron microscope.
- Berenbaum will also announce the winners of the festival’s art exhibit.
The first batch of animated and live-action movie clips will show stings as humorous plot points. The second will show dramatized, sometimes disgusting, cinematic reactions to stings, such as anaphylactic swelling. Think of the famous origin scene of friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.
There’s also “a few in there that those who are disgusted will want to look away,” Tetlie said. Warnings will be provided, of course.
The clips will end with more informative clips explaining how the shots work and how the immune system responds to them. Some will illustrate the “good side” of venom, such as how venom assists certain therapeutic treatments.
“The themes serve as a helpful hook to get people through the door, but then we can talk about more than just venom, about how bugs are so much more than nasty and prickly,” Hsieh said. “It’s a bridge to getting people more interested in insects as a whole.”