Getting stung by insects hurts, and some hurt (a LOT) more than others. Of course, this necessitates a ‘sting pain’ index by which to compare the aftereffects of meeting the business end of a stinger. Why, just last weekend when i was on an ill-fated canoe trip (I dumped out twice, in freezing water) and was stung by a particularly unruly bee, I was remarking on how useful it would be to place my excruciation in the context of other nasty bugly-bites.
Lucky for all of us, an entomologist named Justin O. Schmidt decided to take one for the team and let a lot of bees, ants, and wasps sting him. Then, he would rate the level of ouchiness in an admirably systematic method. He published his “Schmidt Pain Index” in 1984 (refined in later papers, eg 1990), which ranked the sting-pain on a scale from 0 (completely benign) to 4 (mostly dead). The descriptions of the stings he presents are borderline precious, hearkening back to wine-tastings or sampling a pungent perfume:
1.0 Sweat bee: Light, ephemeral, almost fruity. A tiny spark has singed a single hair on your arm.
1.2 Fire ant: Sharp, sudden, mildly alarming. Like walking across a shag carpet & reaching for the light switch.
1.8 Bullhorn acacia ant: A rare, piercing, elevated sort of pain. Someone has fired a staple into your cheek.
2.0 Bald-faced hornet: Rich, hearty, slightly crunchy. Similar to getting your hand mashed in a revolving door.
2.0 Yellowjacket: Hot and smoky, almost irreverent. Imagine WC Fields extinguishing a cigar on your tongue.
2.x Honey bee and European hornet.
3.0 Red harvester ant: Bold and unrelenting. Somebody is using a drill to excavate your ingrown toenail.
3.0 Paper wasp: Caustic & burning. Distinctly bitter aftertaste. Like spilling a beaker of Hydrochloric acid on a paper cut.
4.0 Pepsis wasp: Blinding, fierce, shockingly electric. A running hair drier has been dropped into your bubble bath (if you get stung by one you might as well lie down and scream).
4.0+ Bullet ant: Pure, intense, brilliant pain. Like walking over flaming charcoal with a 3-inch nail in your heel.
One of the worst stings was from Pogonomyrmex badius (an ant, above) which he “likened to pain that might be caused by someone turning a screw into the flesh’ or “ripping muscles and tendons.” Wow. That is serious dedication to your work. Anything that has ‘badius’ in its name, well i’m steering clear of.
But perhaps the worst sting of all goes to the Pepsis wasp (or Tarantula Hawk, yeah it kills tarantulas. Pictured below.). Rather than light or fruity or shag-carpety, he described the pain as “…immediate, excruciating pain that simply shuts down one’s ability to do anything, except, perhaps, scream. Mental discipline simply does not work in these situations.”
Schmidt ended up rating 78 species of stinging insects. Check out some of his papers here:
Schmidt, J. O. 1986. Chemistry, pharmacology, and chemical ecology of ant venoms, pp.425-508. In T. Piek [Ed.], Venoms of the Hymenoptera.. Academic Press, London
Schmidt, J. O. 1990. Hymenoptera venoms: striving toward the ultimate defense against vertebrates, pp. 387-419. In D. L. Evans and J. O. Schmidt [Eds.], Insect defenses: adaptive mechanisms and strategies of prey and predators. State University of New York Press, Albany.
Schmidt, J. O., M. S. Blum, and W. L. Overal. 1984. Hemolytic activities of stinging insect venoms. Arch. Insect Biochem. Physiol. 1:155-160.