The Sting of the Wild by J. O. Schmidt – Book Review

This is a most enjoyable book, written by a scientist who really knows his stuff. Moreover, he loves his chosen research area. His fascination with the topic is more than evident -and quite contagious!- in every single page of the book. The author took me through a series of interesting tales based on the biology of representatives of a few types of stinging insects like bees, ants, and wasps. There was a little bit of something in this book for pretty much everyone. He talked about behavior, pharmacology / biochemistry, ecology, and evolution among many other topics. I loved his writing style, his prudent use of notes, and the nice set of references/further readings at the end of the book. This is good, because I was left wanting for more. Also, I liked that he minimized the scientific jargon without sacrificing accuracy but more importantly, he was not at all patronizing. This shows respect for the interested reader. Moreover, he is a natural storyteller; this is a rare quality that is sadly absent in most popular science books nowadays.

Dr. Schmidt is the inventor of the well-known stinging insects pain scale, but to him this was not a mere academic exercise, he came up with the scale directly from personal experience, by allowing (and sometimes encouraging) a wide variety of insects to sting him. Some have characterized his efforts as “crazy” and although I do not share that opinion, I must say that he is a braver person than most. I certainly would not engage in something like this voluntarily, you’ll never know what will you turn to be allergic to. That being said, if you think Dr. Schmidt is nuts, wait until you read the story about another entomologist (Michael Smith, a grad student at Cornell University… BTW, where I got my PhD…(:-)…) who refined the pain scale, also using himself as a research subject. I’ll let you read about this other guy for yourself. You’ll be either fascinated or totally freaked out, but it is well worth the read!

Now, if you are one of the two and a half people in this universe who read my reviews, you know that I am kind of a nitpicker. Here’s the only two “nits” that I was able to find in this book:

Page 88: “…like a mongoose neutralizes the effects of cobra venom.” – As far as I know, this is not exactly what happens. Rather, the protein in the mongoose (a muscle receptor), that is the target of the cobra venom displays some mutations that make this muscle receptor venom-resistant. The venom is not neutralized, it merely cannot interact with its intended target.

Pages 202-203: The description of the mechanism of how Japanese honeybees defend themselves against giant Japanese hornets is not quite right.

Another thing that made me a little less enthusiastic about the book is that I felt that it ended rather “suddenly”, without general remarks leading to a conclusion. This book literally left me wanting for more.

Overall, great reading!

Note: This review was originally posted in my personal blog, Baldscientist.

sting of the wild

Image credit: Johns Hopkins University Press


The Sting of the Wild

Justin O. Schmidt

Johns Hopkins University Press (2016)

ISBN-13: 978-1421419282


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