STRANGE BUT TRUE- Killer bees: Stingers on steroids can be deadly


Q. What puts the killer in "killer bees"?–B. Melon

A. A single Africanized honeybee releases no more venom than other bees but does react more vigorously to the "alarm pheromone" released, staying agitated longer, says University of California-Davis entomologist Eric Mussen.

So instead of a dozen frenzied bees pursuing a victim for 100 yards, thousands from the colony of 30,000 may pursue, some up to a quarter mile. Yikes.

Even a world class sprinter couldn't outrun them at 20+ miles per hour, though fortunately most of the bees won't pursue very far. But one University of Miami grad student on a field trip to Costa Rica reportedly stepped on a colony in a cave crack, caught his foot, and died of 2,000 stings.

Q. When a smoker's life goes up in smoke, at what rate does this occur? Can you estimate the longevity price of a single pack or even a single cigarette?–R. Serling

A. What follows are average figures, since some smokers get lucky enough to beat the odds. Smoking kills primarily through cancer and heart disease, both late-onset diseases starting at age 50 or so, say Lawrence Weinstein and John A. Adam in Guesstimation: Solving the World's Problems on the Back of a Cocktail Napkin.

Since life expectancy is less than 80, the average unlucky smoker will lose less than 30 years of life but more than a year (otherwise there wouldn't be such a fuss made about smoking). Taking the geometric mean of 1 and 30, smokers die an estimated 5 years earlier than nonsmokers.

If a person starts smoking at age 18 and dies at age 70, averaging a pack per day, that's about 400,000 cigarettes. Making the totally unverifiable but instructive assumption that each cigarette contributes equally to mortality, then each one will cost the smoker 5 years/400,000 = .00001 year = 5 minutes, or about the time it takes to smoke it.

This rough calculation is borne out by a study in the British Medical Journal that found a 6.5-year life-expectancy loss (for less than one pack a day) and concluded each cigarette costs an average 11 minutes of life.

Q. Behind movies like When Worlds Collide, Deep Impact, and Meteor is the statement "Humanity lives with a calculus of infinite devastation times infinitesimal probability." What's the meaning of this?–C. Sagan

A. The remark by geophysicists Steven Ward and Erik Asphaug sums up the probability rule that what can be "expected" of a gamble equals the chance of the outcome occurring times the magnitude of its effect, says Sidney Perkowitz in Hollywood Science.

The infinite devastation here refers to the aftermath of a large outer space object hitting the Earth, times the very, very slight chance of this actually happening in any given year or century. Ward and Asphaug ran a computer calculation on the possible impact of Asteroid 1950 DA, factoring in its slight chance of hitting in 2880, landing, they assumed, in the Atlantic Ocean 380 miles east of Cape Hatteras. Here, the asteroid delivers 60,000 megatons of energy and blows a crater in the ocean 12 miles across and deeper than the 3-mile ocean depth, uprooting the seabed and creating tsunamis with waves 200 feet high across the entire U.S. East Coast. And this from a celestial body just .7 mile across!

One past hit is believed to have doomed the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, plus the Moon itself is thought to have come from the biggest collision Earth has ever known. Billions of years ago, a Mars-sized object struck our planet a glancing blow, tilting it on its axis and causing the four seasons. It also stripped off raw material that eventually coalesced together to form our orbiting Moon.

Send strange questions to brothers Bill and Rich at