In memoriam – Howard W. Jones, Jr. M.D. (1910-2015)


Dr. Howard Jones passed away a year ago today in his 105th year. The following is extracted from the prologue I wrote for “Howard & Georgeanna” (2015) to remind us of our loss. 

Since pioneer days, very few doctors and scientists have left a legacy large enough to be remembered for long, or one that endures beyond their lifetime. For most people who make a great discovery, their sun suddenly breaks out of obscurity to shine brightly for a while before it is eclipsed again by clouds. There are not many men or women whose sun glows constantly from a series of discoveries through a long working life. The Joneses were those kinds of doctors, and their story reads like a history of 20th century reproductive medicine. When Howard was still working into his 105th year, it seemed there would always be a Jones shining in the sky.

Howard Jones Jr.
The Joneses on their wedding day, 1940

Georgeanna made her first research breakthrough in the 1930s during her days off as a student. Howard’s career as a surgeon and gynecological oncologist took off at the same time until he was deployed in the 1940s to care for dreadfully wounded soldiers on the Western Front. From the 1950s through the 1970s, Georgeanna was discovering new causes and treatments of infertility, while Howard pioneered reconstructive surgery. Together, they wrote numerous papers and edited books and journals. And in the 1980s, they established the first in vitro fertilization clinic in the nation, and trained many of today’s leaders in assisted reproductive technology (ART). When I recently asked Howard which advance was most important, he had no hesitation. It was ART because it “conquered the grief of infertility and has a huge societal impact.” I can’t think of any other pair of doctors whose crowning achievement was made after “retirement.”

When they hung up their white coats in the 1990s, they were still busy in the field of human reproduction, or at least Georgeanna was as far as the hard road of her final illness allowed. People like us who were lucky to spend parts of our careers with them remember how they encouraged junior staff and visiting faculty, and had an uncanny knack for solving problems.

Howard Jones and Georgeanna Seegar Jones
Georgeanna and Howard in debate

I was a beneficiary of this wisdom when I joined their faculty in 2001. I hoped to launch an online master’s degree in clinical embryology and andrology, because it seemed a good fit to the reputation of the Jones Institute and I had created the first program in the UK. But the school was unwilling to invest a penny in the idea. It would have been stillborn had Howard not persuaded the Jones Foundation Board to stump up funds to get us started. Now, a dozen years later, the course draws embryologists and physicians from around the world, and almost three hundred have graduated. Where others saw risks Howard grasped opportunities, and his judgment was rarely misplaced.

We wondered what philosophy animated their energy, boldness, and generous hearts. Perhaps owing to the experiences of living through World War II, they were eager to make the world a better place, and when resources were limiting they knew how to make do.

Howard and Sir Bob Edwards, Williamsburg, VA, 2003
Howard and Sir Bob Edwards, Williamsburg, VA, 2003

Their paths to medical careers were paved by family members who worked in the profession before them. But being raised in comfortable homes wasn’t a preparation for the physical and emotional suffering they encountered in their medical practices, which, although such is the lot of everyone in the caring professions, they faced abundantly in combat injuries, oncology wards, birth abnormalities, and infertility. Their devotion to work was, I think, driven by an existential belief in the nobility of labor after witnessing hard times in the 1930s and ‘40s. They understood Chekhov’s Irina, who told her sister: “The time will come, and everyone will know the meaning of all this, why there is all this suffering, and there won’t be any mysteries, but meanwhile, we must go on living… we must work, we must work!” (The Three Sisters, Act IV).

Their work was demanding in time and energy but never a grinding existence, because they had help for managing their household and raising three children. They were passionate to apply their knowledge and skills, and took immense pleasure in helping people build families with the new reproductive technologies. Howard once said, “If I have a legacy, it is of someone who thoroughly enjoyed his work.”

After his first residency in general surgery at Hopkins, he switched to gynecology so he could be closer to Georgeanna. From then on, they were almost inseparable apart from his military service in Europe and Asia, and their collection of letters in the memoir War and Love shows what an extraordinary bond they enjoyed. And yet they were more like the opposite sides of a coin than two identical peas in a pod. She had the more scientifically penetrating mind, and he had the charisma to lead and inspire people; he was the organizer and she was more quietly and effectively laid back; he was fun-loving and she was elegant and decorous. Perhaps it was these opposite natures that attracted, but in every other way they were soulmates. This success as a pair fascinated us as much as their careers. We thought their communion was an art form, like a harmonious pair of dancers who deftly spin around a hall and never let go.

See how the couple whirls along the Dance’s buoyant tide,

And scarcely touches with wingëd feet the floor on which they glide…

Friedrich von Schiller (trans.)

People who never knew the Joneses might wonder if they had out-sized egos on their shoulders to match their achievements. No, not all! They were as much at ease with the office janitor or a child as they were with a visiting dignitary, and they embraced their clinical team like a second family.

At staff journal clubs at their home, Georgeanna was the gracious hostess while Howard sat cross-legged on the floor, only raising his authoritative voice at 9:00 pm sharp with a clap of his hands, announcing “Time for bed!” to scoot everyone out! And when the Jones Institute hosted baby reunion parties, they would mingle with former patients and their children on the lawn, and on one occasion he dressed up to look silly like the clown they invited.

House guests always received warm hospitality, but after Asbury and the Joyners retired as their helpers, you couldn’t count any longer on a fine home-cooked meal. They never had time for that, but he might pull out some dusty bottles of wine given by grateful patients years and years before. They may have been a fine vintage at one time, but age had turned them to vinegar. He thought this hilarious.

It was this attitude that reminded us they were not judgmental people when others blundered, and they always tried to put a positive spin on a mistake. There were life lessons to be learned in their company for people who didn’t think they already knew everything.

Everyone who knew them has a favorite story about the Joneses, and many wonderful vignettes appear at the end of this book. Lucinda treasures stories from the times she traveled with them to conferences overseas.

On a trip to Taiwan, the trio was collected in a limousine by a professor from a local hospital who asked with a heavy accent how a “wombat” was used in the Norfolk lab. That was what Howard thought he had heard after lately taking an interest in a marsupial of that name during a stop in Australia. When he realized his mistake, that the question was really about a “warm bath” for preserving cells, he bent double laughing and alarmed the man, who thought his distinguished guest was having a seizure.

On another occasion, they were together in Stellenbosch, South Africa. The desk clerk at the hotel apologized that the Joneses and Lucinda would have to share a bathroom with another couple from an adjacent room. As there was only one other couple in the dining room, Lucinda marched over to ask if her group could have first use of the bathroom in the morning because they had an early flight. Unfortunately, this was not the couple next door, but another who were occupying the bridal suite, and they immediately ran to see the clerk. Howard almost passed out laughing that time too. Georgeanna said he never could control himself in a droll situation, and remembered embarrassing episodes from his days in amateur opera. If someone accidentally knocked over a prop during the performance, he started giggling uncontrollably on stage.

Graduation day humor shared by Howard, Georgeanna & Lucinda Veeck
Graduation day humor shared by Howard, Georgeanna & Lucinda Veeck

Howard reserved at least a day on conference trips for exploring the city or countryside. He planned every hour for the party, which Georgeanna accepted in good grace even if it was occasionally an ordeal. When they arrived with Lucinda after a 31-hour journey from Norfolk to Auckland, the women were ready to collapse into bed, but he wanted to leave the bags unopened in the hotel and for everyone to head straight for a museum before it closed. He was then already in his late seventies, but never lost a combination of verve and curiosity!

Like other energetic people, the Joneses understood the importance of relaxation and would go swimming at the end of a long day. They had a gift for shifting from the gravity of the clinic or laboratory to the conviviality of home and recreation with friends. When they arrived at my home for a Devonshire cream tea they looked serene, like graceful Southern aristocrats. And at my Burn’s Supper where we had country dancing and bagpipes, they were eager to try a Scottish haggis manufactured in Florida.

Friendships struck with team leaders often wither when the juniors move away, like scions cut from a tree, but the Joneses were different. They kept up a large correspondence with many of their former associates, who were often promoted to friends for life. People craved to be close to Georgeanna and Howard, and we loved them. They had an amazing way of making visitors feel important by giving them undivided attention, and Howard drawing from his memory the tiniest details from their last meeting. They sent Christmas cards to many of their former patients, some of whom remembered how Georgeanna would comfort them in the O.R. by holding onto an anxious hand during a surgical procedure. When we visited their home in Portsmouth in later years, he still greeted us from his wheelchair with outstretched arms, exclaiming in a huge voice that hardly faded since the days he sang opera, “Hey, Cinda and Roger!” and bundling her in his embrace for a kiss. On our final visit, he was lying dreadfully weak in a hospital bed on his last full day, but one of the first things he asked was, “How are your families?” He also inquired about the manuscript for this book: “Is it worth pursuing?” Of course!

The Joneses were around so long they seemed immortal. Some of the staff they had trained was already retired, and most of their peers had passed while they still occupied their offices, although only Howard remained for the past decade. Their longevity and lasting good health baffled us. Perhaps it helped that they had no worries at home, and never seemed to be stressed. They didn’t offer formulas for a long life or dietary advice, and stopping at a fast-food outlet for fried chicken or an occasional hamburger and fries was okay! In an interview for Yale University the year after he became a centenarian, Howard said the secret of longevity is “unique to the individual,” and it takes “the right genes, an exciting and interesting profession, and a serene family life.” Sadly, it is not a combination we can engineer.

When Georgeanna died at age 92 in 2005, he was looking frail after a bout of flu and everyone worried that he too would sink, as elderly carers often do. How could he dance any longer without his life partner? But a few weeks later, he was more his old self again; his voice was coming back strongly, and there was the old twinkle in his eyes. He returned to his office nearly every day for the remaining decade of his life. He read medical journals, attended the journal club, received visitors and journalists, made calls and texts on his iPhone, and dictated manuscripts to Nancy Garcia. There were three more books he wanted to write, including this one, and he was mentally engaged with ethical and legal controversies in medicine. His office looked the same as ever. The desk was well-ordered, usually with an open manuscript he printed from his own computer, the shelves behind his desk were lined with books, and the framed degree certificates still hung on the wall alongside a sword in its scabbard, gifted by a Middle-Eastern friend. Of course, there were pictures of Georgeanna.

She began slipping away mentally more than a decade before she died. She was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, which is no respecter of intellectual brilliance, and during those final years Howard cared for her at home. The image of two bright people, one caring for the other who is fading away intellectually, brings another famous couple to mind. The philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch was cared for by her husband too, the Oxford don John Bailey, and their story is widely known through his book and the movie, Iris. But theirs was a very different “open” marriage, and neither of the Joneses would have understood Iris when she wrote, “The absolute yearning of one human body for another particular body and its indifference to substitutes is one of life’s major mysteries.” The Jones marriage was complete and sufficient.

Howard managed the challenge as he had so many others in life, with sagacity, patience, and love. The first signs of her illness were subtle. She began losing her place in lectures, which was so extraordinary that those who knew her were first to notice the difference. She admitted to her former office nurse, Doris Gentilini, she was forgetting things, and this became obvious when she lost her way home from a hair appointment at Ward’s Corner in Norfolk, just three miles away. At the tenth anniversary celebration of the first IVF baby in Norfolk, she was uncomfortable in the crowd and retired to rest.

Howard knew that patients with this disease suffer from anxiety, becoming distrustful and suspicious, so he kept their lives highly structured and predictable to give her security as she grew more disoriented. She retired from work, stopped driving, and they moved to a one-bedroom condominium. He watched her diet so she wouldn’t lose weight, and gave her a couple of hours to finish a meal, if necessary. Doris came out of retirement to help. Yet, they still traveled together to conferences around the country and overseas, where she recognized old friends. She seemed to be engaged when listening to lectures on highly technical subjects if they were familiar from years gone by, even as she forgot if she had ordered a salad.

Howard initially kept her diagnosis private for the sake of those who loved her, but the story couldn’t be hidden forever and eventually he spoke openly of it because her memory loss was obvious.

She could joke in the early stages about her confusion, like the time they were in Egypt when she asked if they were on the River Severn or the Chesapeake Bay.

Howard replied, “No, Sweetie, it’s the Nile.” She chuckled heartily.

On another occasion, when he was unfolding a napkin before a meal, she pleaded, “No, no, no!” He reassured her it was alright.

“That belongs to my sister,” she said, staring at the napkin.

“It’s OK, Ginny,” he replied. She then dropped the objection.

Flashes of humor continued for a long time, and her old graces were well-preserved because lifelong social skills are deeply engrained. He was never heard to raise his voice in frustration, and always looked on the positive side, trying to make a tough situation special. But he admitted, “She was a wonderful conversationalist, and that’s what I miss most.”

In those days, she still occupied an office next to his, but instead of editing papers and arranging slides of ovarian tissue, she worked on jigsaw puzzles or drew with colored pens that were laid out in neat rows with their caps carefully replaced. After a while, she would nod off in her chair, and Howard would say, “Look at her! She’s so darned sweet!” He believed Alzheimer’s disease laid bare a person’s true nature.

He was still interested in scientific riddles, social concerns, and family matters. Why do eggs age? Why don’t more insurance companies cover infertility? How were his children’s jobs doing, and his granddaughter’s soccer league? If he had frustrations with growing immobility and the complications of diabetes he hid them, perhaps along with other conditions only shared with his personal physician, but which must be expected at a great age. He never whined except to say that perhaps it is easier to pass from life in the way his wife had rather than decay with a fully preserved mind to the end.

Have you noticed how towards the end of life people are often drawn towards water? Some settle in retirement communities overlooking a river or lake, others downsize to a home in a seaside town. Perhaps it is the peaceful flow that pulls them to the waterside like time itself, or the infinitude of the sea and pounding of surf against round pebbles on the beach. Sometimes, it is the happy memory of vacations around water that is so fascinating.

The people along the sand

All turn and look one way.

They turn their back on the land

They look at the sea all day.

Robert Frost

The Joneses kept their membership of the Norfolk Yacht and Country Club long after their sailing days were over. When I joined the Jones Institute, they often invited me to join them at the club for casual dining in The Deck. We would meet on the upper floor with Mason and Sabine Andrews, an admirable gynecologist and his wife, a founder of EVMS, and former city mayor. We chose Thursday evenings because it was quieter and we could take a window seat to look down on the marina and out towards the Bay.

Our table was spread with a white cotton cloth and neatly arranged cutlery and napkins. A waiter soon arrived to pour ice-water into our glasses and take our orders. Maryland crab cakes, chicken, and salad were popular choices, and Howard always chose soft-shelled crab soup for Georgeanna’s starter.

Then the conversation would start up about almost anything. We’d talk about town politics, the hospital expansion, medical care, and even my stem cell project. While we talked, Georgeanna sat silently watching us and smiling to show she was engaged. These four were old friends from Hopkins days, but they never made a younger buck like me feel out of place, and did much to help me settle in Norfolk. They were lively spirits and enlightened company who, as much as they enjoyed looking back on past achievements, looked forward to new goals. They had not stopped working as Improvers and Encouragers.

After the meal, we’d rearrange our chairs in an arc in front of the full-length windows to enjoy the scene. Below us, hundreds of white boats of all shapes and sizes were drawn up in tight rows along the slips at the end of day. The rigging of yachts slapped against their masts, and sea rods on motor launches leaned forward like the antennae of giant aquatic bugs gently nodding in the breeze. A fisherman lugged a heavy bucket of fish from his boat over a gangplank with its water sloshing over his gumboots. He waved at a friend on a late boat chugging into an adjacent berth. It was often like that.

The conversation would fall quiet as we’d study activity in the dock below, but as the light faded we would raise our eyes to the skyline. Georgeanna would gaze very intently into the distance. Perhaps she hoped to see the sail of a yawl coming into harbor; then perhaps she could climb onboard and sail off once more to the Chesapeake Bay of deep memory.

Our meal was timed to finish with the sun setting over the shining waters of the Lafayette River until it dropped behind the silhouettes of dockyard cranes at the container terminal. Those evenings always seemed miraculously clear with barely a cloud scudding across the sky. If you ever watched a sunset closely on such an evening you will know how slowly it traces an arc to earth. It starts as a fiery yellow orb which was high in the heavens all day, but makes its descent almost imperceptibly until you notice some of heat has gone out of it and it is turning orange before becoming blood red. For a moment it looks like it will rest on the edge of the earth and scorch it. But then, and rather suddenly, it is swallowed up and the horizon where earth meets sky turns a royal purple.

When the show was over, we’d rise and take the elevator to the ground floor. There was nothing more to say after the spectacle and we stepped outside in silence, Howard leading Georgeanna with her arm curled around his. Walking into the darkening parking lot, we looked for their car with the “2DOCS” license plate. The first evening stars twinkled overhead.

Tangier Island in the Chesapeake Bay

I wonder if anywhere tugs at the heart more than an island home for an islander. This whimsical thought came to me while cruising on the Bay for a return visit to Tangier Island, when I was reminded of a far and different island I call my own.

My island birth was accidental because an epidemic infection in a London hospital closed the birthing center where I was due to make an appearance. My mother had to take the 30-minute paddle-boat ride across the Solent to her family on the Isle of Wight for a home delivery. Having missed the chance of becoming a “Cockney,” an Island birth made me a “Caulkhead.”

Isle of Wight
Isle of Wight

Islanders have been called Caulkheads since the days of yore when they were hired to caulk sailing ships, although the word was corrupted to “Corkhead” by poor spellers who had to explain the nickname. To be a true Corkhead, it was said, you must be thrown off Ryde pier as a newborn baby to see if you floated.

The smaller and more isolated an island the richer its store of anecdotes and stories, and it often boasts a reputation for eccentricity. If you don’t know what I mean try watching Whisky Galore, based on Sir Compton MacKenzie’s droll novel about Scottish islanders who “rescue” a cargo of whisky from a sunken freighter during World War II.

To be a true islander you need a differentiated mindset. This is partly in defense against outsider prejudice, but mainly for the sake of pride in the strip of water that sets you apart from others and enables the evolution of particular customs, habits and, dare I say, peculiarities. Caulkheads used to look aloof to the mainland across the narrow strait at “Overlanders” (shortened to Overners), but that was when the Isle of Wight was still virginal, before it became a Victorian resort for celebrities and royalty and a popular retirement home which made it just “ordinary.” The Vectis National Party in the 1970s tried to turn back the clock, but the independence movement fizzled out otherwise I might now qualify for an Isle of Wight passport!

The English Channel has molded an island mentality for mainland Britons, but the Isle of Wight was cast off from the mother island after the Ice Age melt so we might expect Caulkheads to have a deeper sense of apartness. Maybe that’s why they gave a large majority to the Leave campaign in the Brexit referendum (62% of a 72% turnout voted to leave the European Union). Tangier men and women too take pride in their unique identity and history.

I searched the horizon for the first hour of the crossing until I saw a thin black line shimmering between sea and sky on the hot day. I was joyful at the sight of Tangier again. At its peak above the high tide mark it is barely shoulder high, and ever at risk of being swamped by hurricanes which requires the entire population of a few hundred souls to be evacuated. Most of its 740 acres is a marshland paradise for wading birds and ducks, and far too hazardous even for houses on stilts. Little more than 10% of the land surface is habitable, and even that is slowly sinking and shrinking.

Crabbers sheds on the channel, Tangier Island
Crabbers sheds on the channel, Tangier Island

As we entered the channel we passed private docks with piles of crabbing pots alongside a shed and a berth for a shallow motor boat. Apart from a short tourist season, the Tangier economy depends on the “watermen” who earn the island’s reputation as the soft-shell crab capital of the world. After the blue crabs are harvested they are moved into tanks of salty water to molt their shells, leaving a carcass of mostly edible meat which is a seasonal favorite in restaurants.

Another lover of islands, Truman Capote, wrote that they: “are like ships of permanent anchor. To set foot on one is like starting up a gangplank. One is seized by the same feeling of charmed suspension: It seems nothing unkind or vulgar can happen to you.” I understood as we stepped ashore towards a few greeters waiting for us. A lady waved us into her golf cart, not for the sport for there is no golf course on the island, but for a ten minute round trip at top speed past the 15 mph warning (radar controlled). The sole policeman on Tangier has light traffic duties, and apart from a couple of emergency vehicles automobiles are almost absent.

Tangier Island
Main Street

When I took a seat in the cart beside my brother and sister-law who were visiting from South-west England I asked them to watch for differences to mainland folk. The uniformity of ethnicity and class was the first thing that struck them, and the preponderance of full beards was next. The islanders also had an unfamiliar accent which I was advised before my first visit long ago would sound like old West Country English. But I never heard obsolete words from Shakespeare, and my sister-in-law who is a native of that corner of England declared the accent was quite different to modern Devonshire and Cornish. Since no spoken language is frozen in time I don’t expect to hear the same twang elsewhere. We had plenty of opportunities to listen because the islanders like to stop for conversation with strangers, which is a rare compliment seldom paid today except in the deepest countryside.

We paused to cast our eyes on a plaque of World War veterans. We also wandered around a tiny cemetery reading inscriptions on the heavy gravestones that anchor shallow coffins from floating away during floods. I think there were far more Crocketts, Pruitts and Parks recorded than all the other names combined. Many islanders are direct descendants of the original settlers who came from Cornwall in the 1670s. Considering island life, I am not surprised there has been so little admixture over the centuries, although it was hard to imagine the rigors of winter there because we had a bonny day.

We stopped behind a picket fence to gaze at the old Methodist church of unspoiled white clapboard and black shingles and look up at the pointy bell tower, which is one of the highest points on the island after the water tower. The smell of soap and polish greeted me inside as I stared at the Victorian glass windows and rows of dark pews with hymnals neatly laid out. When I see a church that well-cared for I imagine a large and devoted congregation, and that day I imagined many memorial services held there for men lost at sea.

The museum is one of the highlights of a trip to the island, but you should leave behind the definition of museums in NYC, DC and London. The Tangier museum is the most amateur and most authentic museum I ever knew. Its managers have lovingly curated artefacts donated by residents to tell the story of their home and people. It is a living museum in which the curators and elderly docents are among the exhibits if you stop to listen to their stories. There is old crabbing and fishing tackle laid out alongside marine hardware, duck decoys and rusted shotguns. The walls are covered with faded newspaper and magazine cuttings about local stories of triumph, hardship and rare celebrity visitors. A yellowing 1930s article reported the arrival of a boat resupplying the starving islanders after three months of isolation in the frozen Bay. We forgot the time and had to run for ice creams at store before the only boat of the day returned to Reedville.

Islands are laboratories where the culture and living of small, relatively isolated populations adapt to the peculiarities of the environment and the whims of a maritime climate. They are biological laboratories too, where natural selection molds genotypes over eons to create forms and behaviors that exist nowhere else.

Over a hundred species of lemurs are endemic in Madagascar, over 90% of terrestrial mammals in Luzon in the Philippines are not found anywhere else in the world, and New Zealand has been a haven of strange and flightless birds. In Galapagos, the finches are distinct from descendants of a common ancestor in mainland Ecuador, and more recently diverged between islands as beaks adapted to local bugs and berries.

On some islands, bodies evolved to become giants, like the moas and giant tortoises, or became dwarfs, like the extinct hobbits of Flores, Indonesia. But you don’t have to go to the tropics to see the reshaping of a species by island isolation. I spent a week studying voles on the then uninhabited island of Skomer, which is separated from the rest of Wales by only a few hundred yards across the Jack Strait. The Skomer vole is a larger and cuter edition of the common bank vole in the mainland, and tamer.

The voles sat in the palm of my hand blithely nibbling grain, but such trust is disastrous when a new predator arrives. Island life is sensitive to change and immigration. Many native birds are now extinct in New Zealand and Guam, while Galapagos tortoises compete with feral goats for food, and so on ….

Tangier islanders face more threats these days, and I found them more pessimistic about the future than on previous visits. Their admirable self-reliance has served them well, but they now face external threats to their way-of-life that are hard to resist. Caulkheads fared better after they came under the gentle assault of Outlander hegemony because they benefited from a blossoming tourist industry, but Tangier men and women have few, if any, compensations for the challenges they face. Water levels are rising, crabbing quotas are falling, and young people are leaving.

Never send to know for whom the bell tolls on the old church, it tolls for thee. In a world that looks more uniform, if more economically divided, where a store or hotel looks the same in Georgetown, Guwahati and Guangzhou, where occupations were defined by geography and culture is blurred by globalization, Tangier Island stands out as a survivor from a more colorful age. Go to there to savor the difference and spend your $$$. Enjoy it for what it is and don’t ask for the amenities you expect on the mainland. Adjust your spectacles so you can see that what seemed poor and dull is rich and precious.

Next Post: Walter Heape, F.R.S.—A Pioneer of Reproductive Biology




Where the Bee Stings

Bee stings … an occupational hazard for beekeepers. The price paid for hosting hives and stealing their honey. I score about three hits per season, and they are generally deserved from carelessly zipping my beesuit. But honey bee stings don’t give the biggest punch: that dubious honor is held by the tarantula hawk and the bullet ant, each scoring 4 out of 4 on the Schmidt Sting Pain Index.


Dr. Justin Schmidt is a doughty entomologist at the University of Arizona (The Sting of the Wild). Over a career he has invited stings from every hymenopteran species he encountered. He gave a score of only 1 to some ants and small bees whose stings didn’t hurt much or for long. Most honeybee varieties scored 2, which I can report gets my attention. Red paper wasps and velvet ants were at 3. Few species reached the top of the range – a blinding pain that feels extreme/ excruciating/ electric – and yet the pain from a ¼” tarantula hawk sting is long over (if not forgotten) before a honeybee’s sting has started to fade. Why the difference? Why do some insect stings give crippling pain while others are as mild as pressing a pencil tip on the skin, and many fierce-looking bugs don’t or can’t sting? Nature presents many conundrums, but this isn’t one of them because stinging makes sense in biology.

The hawks lay their eggs inside tarantulas which are eaten alive after their larvae hatch. They rarely sting us unless we try really hard to annoy them, as Dr. Schmidt must have done to obtain “data”. Why should they shoot their big gun when we don’t normally threaten them? As solitary wasps they have no “home” to protect. The mud-dauber wasps are also solitary, often making a tubular nest of dried mud on the sidings of our home. Schmidt tried very hard to get them to sting him, and when one was sufficiently enraged it hardly hurt.

Honey bees and yellow jackets, on the other hand, are colony dwellers that store food during warm seasons to support them with their queen through the winter in readiness for a burst of foraging and reproduction in early spring. Their honeycomb must be defended at all costs, which they do aggressively whenever a beekeeper inspects his/ her hives. But honey bees rarely sting while they are feeding in a garden or meadow unless you trap them between your toes, etc.

During the hot Virginia summer large numbers of bees gather at the side of our pool to take water back to their hive for air-conditioning. I can impress visitors by nonchalantly wading through a buzzing cloud, trusting they won’t sting me clad only in swimming trunks. For the same reason that they are relatively docile away from their food store, a swarm of bees that is emigrating to create a new colony is quite passive, even though it may look terrifying. But there is a different explanation for the old trick of circus performers who dared to pour bees into their mouths – by carefully selecting drones they can’t be stung.

Queen bees possess a sting, but they leave hive defense to workers and reserve their swords for dispatching rival queens. There is another difference between them. Queens can sting repeatedly, whereas it is a death sentence for workers because their anatomy requires stings to be ejected with some of the viscera.

Human sensibilities might deem their sacrifice altruistic for defending the hive’s socialist society, but surely natural selection could have evolved a superior warrior bee that can sting and survive, just as many other species can and do? Perhaps the explanation is that death is required for the release of a special pheromone for attracting other bees to escalate attacking a threat. This pheromone is a mixture of volatile fatty acids said to smell like bananas, and beekeepers lightly smoke their hives to pacify bees by masking the scent. I can hardly blame them for being angry, and in a feminist poem Sylvia Plath sympathized with female workers whose bounty is stolen by (male) beekeepers:

Stings poem

One of the scariest encounters you might have on a hiking trail in the South-West is with a mountain lion, but I would rather take my chances with the big cat than with a swarm of Africanized bees (aka killer bees). They are spreading north in states from Texas to California. A young man died this summer after a bee attack, as have several dogs and even horses. Africanized bees can’t be outrun, wait for you to come up for air if you jump in a pool, and can’t be fought off except with fire. They don’t have a more painful sting but are more aggressive – much, much more aggressive.

The victim wasn’t reported to be allergic, but the thousand stings on his body exceeded the lethal dose for bee venom. The major active agent in venom is an acidic peptide, melittin, which has anti-inflammatory properties and is probably responsible for its long-supposed medicinal value in the Orient. So there may be virtue in it, even while we try to avoid stings or carry an EpiPen as a precaution.

There is an outsized fear of being stung that beekeepers have to shrug off. But, apart from the 30 minutes of pain, let’s put a perspective on the big risk – of dying from bee stings.

According to CDC statistics for human mortality from wild and domesticated animals for the fifteen years to 2014, 486 people died from dog attacks, 1,163 from other mammals (mostly cattle and horses), 9 from crocodilians, about 15 from black bears and only one from a mountain lion. But 921 people died after being stung by bees, wasps or hornets, although most of them are thought to have been allergic to the venom. This is not a huge risk compared to others we face, and it is one that I dare say beekeepers hardly think about, but if we could compare the total number of attacks from all these species, combining non-fatal and fatal ones, I am sure bee stings would soar above all. And what do all these figures reveal – that we put ourselves most at risk not from ferocious wild carnivores but from the creatures we choose to live with or steal from.


Next Post: Cruise to Tangier Island in the Chesapeake Bay

%d bloggers like this: