'Mr. Hornet' sees warning from space in timid insects


March 30, 1993|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau

TEL AVIV -- There's a bad science-fiction plot here somewhere: Hornets sent into space return frightened and timid. They stumble when they walk, barely fly and flee from their usual social groups. Curiously, anesthesia barely affects them.

The devoted scientist notices this condition, and he worries that men flying in space will suffer the same effects. But alas, his funding has run out, his project is finished, and his plea for further studies may go unheeded. Will he finish his studies in time?

A little too dramatic, perhaps, for Jacob S. Ishay. But not by much. The facts are all there.

Mr. Ishay is the father of an experiment that sent 360 Israeli hornets into space last September with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Endeavor space shuttle.

The planned experiment was a flop: A filter clogged, and humidity in the high-tech cages soared, killing all but 27 insects. But in studying the survivors, Mr. Ishay noticed severe effects in their behavior.

Those effects are well-worth studying for their implications for astronauts, he believes.

"The brain is acting differently. It's very concerning about being in space," he said. "I would advise all these space companies that are sending rats and mice into space not just to see if they return intact, but to study their reactions, too.

"I think there is room for a lot more experiments like this before sending people to space stations for a long time."

Mr. Ishay's warnings may be dismissed as those of a bug nut. Indeed he is the "Mr. Hornet" of entomology. In his small office at the Tel Aviv University's Sacklar School of Medicine, the walls are lined to the ceiling with his publications on various studies of hornets -- almost 200 to date.

To explain a point, he rummages through a jumbled collection of papers and old hornet nests to retrieve a large plaster model of a tiny segment of a hornet's head. It is a fearsome piece of sculpture.

Down the hall is a lab with a shelf of cages containing queen hornets. It is no easy task to keep them alive in captivity, he explains. In another closet-like room is the prototype of the hornet's space cage.

In designing it, Mr. Ishay failed to anticipate that floating debris in the weightless cage would clog the filter, killing the humidity-sensitive hornets. The disaster capped eight years of work on the project, and Mr. Ishay had to take a long and soulful walk on the beach -- his main relaxation, he says-- to recover from what he admits was "an enormous disappointment."

The space trip was supposed to examine how hornets would construct combs absent the gravity that tells them which direction to build. He has applied to repeat the test on future NASA launches, but the review process is long and discouraging.

The test also was to see if weightlessness increased the surprising semiconductor properties of hornet "skin" and comb.

Mr. Ishay thinks solar cells might be made much lighter and cheaper from this material, but he cannot get industry interested in doing further research on it.

He is accustomed to having other people lack his enthusiasm for insects. As a boy in the Carpathian mountains of Romania, he said, he would watch bees for hours, to the bewilderment of the local farmers.

He immigrated to Israel as a teen-ager in 1948 and took up beekeeping.

When hornets began eating his bees -- a peculiarity of this region, he says -- he was told to poison the ground-dwelling hornets.

"But I didn't really like the idea," he says. Instead, he dug up some nests to study them. His curiosity led to three degrees in biology and entomology, and a lifetime of work with the insects.

His academic interest has not dampened a boyish affection for insects too creaturely and hostile to inspire compassion in most people.

He talks disparagingly of researchers who amputate organs or appendages of hornets.

"These experiments are quite cruel. Hornets don't speak. You can't ask them how they feel," he said. "I do feel for them. I wouldn't like all my insects to be maimed or crippled."

He insists that they "have emotions. They have pain.

"And besides, even if they don't, I do. Why should I do something I don't like?"

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