This Scientist Rates the Pain of Insect Stings—Using Personal Experience

Justin O. Schmidt has traveled the world studying—and getting stung by—some terrifying insects. In his new book, he explains the nuances of the sting, from the bulldog ant to tarantula hawk.

May 19, 2016
Outside Magazine
This Scientist Rates the Pain of Insect Stings—Using Personal Experience

Right: Sample collection as part of a study in Costa Rica of the genetics of Africanized honey bees. These bees were intentionally provoked, something not recommended for the inexperienced.    Photo: Johns Hopkins Press; Justin O. Schmidt

Justin O. Schmidt was in Costa Rica visiting a friend—a fellow entomologist investigating the ecology of the screwworm fly—when his well-honed insect radar led him to a nest of rare Polybia simillima. He was excited. Notorious for depositing their stingers snugly into a victim’s flesh, these black, bullet-sized wasps also have a remarkably resonant sting. 

In Schmidt’s words: “Opportunity knocks, and then flees. I was not about to let this opportunity flee.” So he put on his bee suit, and, armed with clippers and a bag, charged into the thrumming hive of wasps. The wasps stung him several times in the face and neck. He went about collecting the nest as red puncture wounds appeared one-by-one in his skin. 

Being stung in the line of data-collecting duty is normal for Schmidt. A biologist and entomologist who has been called the “King of Sting,” he studies the nuances in the venoms of the world’s stinging insects, from tarantula hawks to sweat bees. His new book, The Sting of the Wild, out from Johns Hopkins Press this month, even includes a ranking—dubbed the Schmidt Sting Pain Index—of each of the 83 types of stings he’s experienced while conducting his field research. The rankings run from a minimally painful one (for example, a deer fly bite) to four (a bullet ant bite, which will leave your skin burning for hours). His scientific interests aren't as nutty as they seem—his quest is to find out, why do these insects fight back the way they do?

Schmidt has traveled far and wide to gather data, from Trinidad to Japan. Outside caught up with the world’s foremost insect sting expert in between trips to ask him about his book, his poetic descriptions of pain, and the notorious award it’s earned him. 

OUTSIDE: How do you find the language to write about the different types of pain of insect stings? 
SCHMIDT: That is a real challenge, because you don’t want the language to be redundant for the reader. Each species’ sting feels unique and the key is to articulate it as accurately as possible. For example, stings from honeybees and yellowjacket wasps are a complex pain—it’s an itchy burning, like a flame or like ash fell on you. It’s a complicated, robust pain. Whereas the bites of bulldog ants—big, charismatic ants—cause a pain that is very clean and pure, almost a sharp, piercing pain, like stabbing a tiny sharp instrument into your skin. It’s not the rich pain you get from a honeybee or a wasp. And then the tarantula hawk, well, that feels like a pure electrical zap. It’s an electrifying pain. 

These are few different characteristics. I do find myself running out of words because we don’t have many references for pain, like we do for smells. 

Apart from the physical strain of experiencing all those sensations yourself, what’s the hardest part of your work?

The hardest part is finding the creatures. I often have to rely on serendipity. I seek out places where I know there will be interesting stinging insects, and then I hope to stumble upon them. Knowing the area where they’ll be helps to a certain extent, but often I’m surprised by certain discoveries. There’s a lot of luck involved.

The Ig Nobel Prizes, administered by actual Nobel Laureates, celebrate scientists who have “made people laugh, and then think.” What was it like to win one of those? 
That was quite fun! I won in the Physiology and Entymology category for creating the Schmidt Sting Pain Scale. The awards ceremony was held on the Harvard/MIT campus on September 17, 2015. They put on a wonderful show. We were all hidden from the audience until the last moment and were then led onto the stage all attached to a rope, possibly to keep us from getting too unruly or lost. Only then did the public get a glimpse of us. We got a nice certificate to frame, ten trillion Zimbabwe dollars, and an artistic tree showing the main elements of life.  

What do you want people to take away from your book?
I want people to realize that insects are beautiful. They have interesting stories to them, every bit as interesting as ours. Hopefully, readers will see those stories brought to life in my book. I want to instill a love of science and a sense of awe and wonderment for these creatures. If we don’t have that, then we’re missing something important to the human experience here on earth. We need to cherish our planet’s biology.  

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