"Alien Invasion," we saw the devastating impact invasive species
such as the brown tree snake and the gypsy moth can have on
entire ecosystems. We also saw how humans are often the unwitting
travel agents for these alien invaders. One such alien is
the Africanized bee, more alarmingly known as the killer bee,
which was intentionally imported to Brazil in the 1950's.
This aggressive bee attacks in huge numbers and can kill animals
as large as dogs and even humans.
Justin O. Schmidt is a research entomologist at the Carl Hayden
Bee Research Center in Tucson, Arizona. Schmidt studies apiculture-
the science of beekeeping- with an emphasis on bee nutrition,
chemical communication, physiology, ecology and behavior of
bees. FRONTIERS talked with Schmidt recently about how he
came to be a killer bee expert, and how scientists hope to
solve the problems associated with this unwelcome guest in
the United States.
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made you decide to become an entomologist?
always been interested in insects. All kids like creepy crawlies.
Some of us grow up, and some don't.
All kids like
creepy crawlies. Some of us grow up, and
studied organic chemistry in college. In graduate school,
I became interested in physical organic chemistry - how reactions
occur. I was in a beautiful environment, cooped up in a lab
smelling of horrible solvents and I thought "life's got to
have more to it than this." So I talked to the entomology
professor and he was very welcoming. The frontier of entomology
then was moving toward chemistry with less emphasis on classical
Insects communicate by chemistry, by odors. We do a little
bit of that, but with insects it is their main system. Chemical
ecology investigates what the chemicals are, how they work,
how sophisticated the system is. Insects are the masters of
of all the insects in the world, how did you get involved
in researching bees specifically?
Schmidt examines a man-made "swarm trap" used to study
I started thinking about the social insects- ants, wasps,
bees. Not many predators mess with these things. They are
very well defended. I started looking at that defense, at
How does stinging work as defense? The sting pain is about
getting your attention. It's a little deceptive. There's no
real damage, so you might be hungry enough to go after that
honey. It's like if you constantly tell your kids, "don't
do that" with no follow through, the kids will just start
to ignore you eventually.
So, you need some degree of toxicity. For a beekeeper, the
size difference makes the toxicity trivial. But if you are
a mouse, four to five stings could kill you. So it's truth
in advertising. The pain is the ad. The toxicity is the truth.
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Justin O. Schmidt