For most people a single bee or wasp sting is one too many. But University of Arizona entomologist Justin Schmidt is a dramatic exception: By his own estimation he has been stung more than 1,000 times by at least 80 kinds of insects as part of his job. After unintentionally collecting a few different types of stings while conducting fieldwork to investigate the social behavior of stinging insects, Schmidt decided to take a cue from medical science and create a sting pain index that ranked each sting on a scale of 1 to 4 with eloquent, almost poetic descriptions of the pain (or lack thereof) they caused. The scale, Schmidt hoped, would help reveal how the ability to sting—and the type of sting delivered—serve different insects and enable their respective social structures.
In his new book The Sting of the Wild, which came out this week and was published by Johns Hopkins University Press, Schmidt explains the roles of stings in insect society in great detail. He devotes chapters to how different insects inflict their respective flavors of pain, covering creatures from fire ants to tarantula hawk wasps to honeybees. For the first time, Schmidt’s full sting pain index and his thoughts on each experience—including such comments as “like coffee, but oh so bitter” for a low-level sting or “like spilling a beaker of hydrochloric acid on a paper cut” for a higher one—is published at the end of the book. Even though the pain-laced topic might leave you wincing, Schmidt’s engaging and entertaining writing makes for a tale worth reading.
Scientific American spoke with Schmidt about his many stings and his research into insect socialization.
[An edited transcript of the conversation follows.]
How many insect stings from your scale have you personally experienced?
Pretty much all of them. I think there are 83, and I’ve been stung by all but one or two. I have a colleague in Trinidad and I think I reported one or two from him, but pretty much all the rest of them are some I’ve personally been stung by.
How does understanding this pain scale help to understand stinging insects?
I was really interested in how come certain insects are much more defensive than others. If you mess around with a wasp or yellow jacket colony, they come out to greet you, usually tail-end first. They’re very defensive and they hurt. Honeybees are the same category—you go and kick a hive, which is not a very wise or nice thing to do, but if you do that or block them form getting into their colony, they come and let you know real fast. Is there some relationship between the pain and the defenses of these various insects? Long story short—the answer is pretty much yes. We lock our cars and doors to keep what’s ours ours; they don’t really have locks, so one of their responses is to have a sting which really hurts. What natural selection has evolved them to do is make it difficult for you to come and rob their territory.
Why do some insects develop a painful sting with no lasting punch, while others can kill with a single jab?
That’s one of the things where the exceptions really pointed me in the right direction. I was studying the tarantula hawk—it’s the highest, most intense immediate pain of any of the insects. It really gets your attention. But the pain goes away in two to three minutes, which is kind of odd. When you try to determine if it does any damage, it does virtually none! Then you’ve got others, like the honeybee, which do a lot of damage. You get all red and puffy, and four stings will kill a mouse—and the mouse is relevant because mice invade colonies in the winter and then eat all the honey and the brood and the bees, and they’re a threat to the bee. The ultimate is you can kill that thing, which takes it out of the gene pool. That’s relevant for honeybee colonies or a yellow jacket colony or many ant colonies—things that have long-lived colonies with many individuals who can’t flee or run. When I looked at those and said, What’s the difference? the difference is the tarantula hawk has nothing to defend except her own personal body. What’s the goal to defending yourself? You basically want whoever’s got you to let you go. The best way to do that is to instantaneously nail them and give them a huge painful jab. There’s no real reason to make the pain last any longer.
Why use yourself as a stinging metric?
The simple answer is that you can sense things yourself better than you can sense things that anybody else feels. Another reason is that I was the one doing the questioning of how does this all relate to big-picture sociology of stinging insects. Since I was working on those back in the early days, I was naturally getting stung, and…it’s one of those things where if something gets your attention and you have a notebook, you might as well write it down. I virtually never intentionally got stung, certainly not by anything very scary, but I was an opportunist.
So you never deliberately tried to get stung?
I have been stung by a few things intentionally, and usually I do it kind of begrudgingly—I force myself to do it because people keep asking me. One of my favorites is the dirt dauber wasp. It’s very intimidating and frightening visually. People keep asking how it feels to be stung by them, and I don’t know—I’ve never been stung! I ask people who’ve worked with them and they’ve never been stung; they say they don’t sting. That’s not very satisfying when people are asking, “Does it hurt?” I can say I don’t think it would hurt that much, but that’s not the same as knowing. So, brave me, with the knowledge that the theory was saying they shouldn’t hurt much because they have nothing to defend and they don’t seem to sting much and they don’t attack you, said, “Well, okay, guess I have to go deal with this.” It’s kind of like going to a doctor’s office—the anticipation of the vaccination is far worse than the actual event itself. I grabbed this dirt dauber and made it sting me. It was this amazingly unimpressive sting, at most a 1 on the scale. You can feel it a little bit but it’s not nearly as bad as being stuck by a cactus spine or something like that. That was nice, because theory and practice turned out to go hand in hand.
What’s the most memorable sting you’ve experienced?
One of them really sticks in my mind, which is kind of unimpressive other than it will demonstrate my foolishness. I was being impatient. There was this Arizona paper wasp. They’re known to nest in the dead fronds of palm trees. I knew they were in there and I was trying to catch some, and they weren’t really doing anything. I finally got impatient and grabbed hold of a bottom leaf and gave it a good strong jerk. And at the same time I was doing that, I was looking up and realized, oops, there were about 40 colonies of 10 to 30 wasps all sitting there staring at me. I was too oblivious and hadn’t seen them before, so when I gave that snap that was the straw that broke the camel’s back. They came out like bullets. I think I counted nine stings in about nine tenths of a second. It’s not the most painful by any means—it’s roughly about like a honeybee sting—but if you get eight honeybee stings to your forehead, that does catch your attention.
About how many times do you think you’ve been stung over the course of your research?
I don’t really know. I guess about a thousand, which is a nice round number. I may be off by 500, but whatever it is, it’s a big number.