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Alien Invasion

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Dr. Killer Bee 4 pages: | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 |

Photo of BeesIn "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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What made you decide to become an entomologist?

I've 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
some don't.

I 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 entomology.

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 chemistry.

Out of all the insects in the world, how did you get involved in researching bees specifically?

Photo of Justin with Bees
Justin Schmidt examines a man-made "swarm trap" used to study Africanized bees.  

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 their venom.

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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4 pages: | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 |

Photos: Justin O. Schmidt

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