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Entomologist Gives Behind-The-Scenes Tour Of The Insect World

Bees, Arachnids, And The Pinnacle Of Pain For Bug Bites

Above: TheNAT's entomologist Dr. Michael Wall displays some of the wonders of the bug world.

Aired 9/23/13 on KPBS Midday Edition.

GUESTS:

Dr. Michael Wall, Curator of Entomology and Vice President of Research and Public Programs

Beth Accomando, KPBS Arts and Culture Reporter

Transcript

TheNAT recently highlighted the bug world with its Dr. Entomo's Palace of Exotic Wonders. While that exhibit has closed, TheNAT has an ongoing commitment to studying bugs through its entomology department and permanent bug collection.

You could say love led Dr. Michael Wall to bugs. He was studying botany but his wife-to-be was studying entomology and that led him to the fascinating interactions between the plant and insect world.

There are also interactions between creatures in the insect world — often these interactions sound like the stuff of horror films. Like what happens between the Jerusalem cricket and horse hair worm:

"[Jerusalem crickets] can get parasitized by things called horse hair worms that eventually take over the chemistry of the cricket and cause them to feel like they are thirsty, like they are insatiably thirsty. That drives the crickets to water and then they actually drown themselves and then the horse hair worm comes out," Dr. Wall said.

That's the stuff of horror. But Wall says we have only scratched the surface of the bug world.

"There’s a little over a million species of described insects and the estimates range up to like 10 million more. Just in terms of knowing what’s out there, there’s so much we have to discover and that doesn’t even begin to get into the interactions of how all those things interact with one another."

Credit: Katie Euphrat

The pinnacle of pain also known as the tarantula hawk whose sting is deemed the most painful among North American insects.

Wall elaborated on the interaction between bugs and plants for NPR when he was asked about the recent video game "The Last of Us" and its use of the cordyceps fungus as the means of infecting humans and turning them into zombie-like creatures. Wall said of the game designers, "They're definitely tapping into this idea that parasites can change the behavior of their hosts and make their hosts do things to the benefit of the parasite."

But while cordyceps can "zombifiy" an ant, Wall said, "Jumping from the insect world to human world is highly unlikely. Several thousand of these species of fungus can occur on lots of different insects, so you might think, like, oh, wow, then why couldn't it jump over to us? But in terms of the evolutionary family tree, humans and insects are really far apart."

If you want to meet the entertaining and knowledgeable Dr. Wall, there are a very limited number of tickets available to the general public for this Wednesday's KPBS Producers Club event Bugs and Beers with Dr. Wall presenting a screening of the 1958 film "The Fly" and introducing people to some creepy crawlers. They will also be bug cupcakes.

Bug Movies: "Them!," "Tarantula," "The Fly," "Empire of the Ants," "Mimic"

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