Interview with Dr. Justin O. Schmidt

A few weeks back we brought you a story on the Schmidt Sting Pain Index, a system developed to compare the relative intensity of Hymenoptera (bees, wasps and ants) stings. The index was developed through personal "research" conducted unintentionally by Dr. Justin Schmidt, an entomologist who has devoted his life to these ornery critters.

As the Index combines all the things Zooillogix readers love (i.e. science and non-life threatening personal injury) the response to the post was strong. Therefore in collaboration with Shelley Batts, formerly of Retrospectacle and now the brand new ScienceBlog, Of Two Minds, we decided to contact Dr. Schmidt directly and see if he might answer some of our questions. The following is a transcript of the interview with the questions in bold.

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Dr. Justin Schmidt demonstrates one of the many techniques he has perfected over the years to royally piss off bees.

Why are some insect stings more painful than others? Is it a result of gross tissue/cell damage or are they specifically evolved to interact with pain neurons?

We don't know for sure. My hunch is that gross tissue/cell damage is a minor part in most situations, and that the venom components directly interact with tissues or receptors involved with pain signaling.

What do you think is the most interesting insect venom, and why?

Three come to mind. Bullet ant because it causes such intense pain and, especially, that it lasts so long and is not "diluted" out of the pain-inducing concentration in the local sting area. Second is the tarantula hawk because its pain-inducing component(s) cause such immediate pain, yet the pain is gone within a couple of minutes, either by the component(s) being degraded or diluted. Third is the harvester ant venom because it seems to directly affect the neuromuscular junction and other cholinergic receptors (unique among insect venoms) and is so incredibly toxic.

Was there a point that you regretted letting a particular insect sting you?

I never directly "let myself be stung" by anything particularly painful. Those that are really painful are quite good at stinging one without help. The worst stinging I received was probably by some black wasps (Polybia simillima) in Costa Rica. It was the only time I have ever seen that species, was ill-equipped at the time to collect the large nest, did not realize how good they were at penetrating bees suits and other barriers, and I absolutely needed that nest. The result was lots of nasty burning stings and a few irate colleagues who were nearby. Incidentally, most of my nasty stinging events are similar - they were serendipitous discoveries of a wonderful species that I needed and had no choice: grasp the moment, or lose it.

(more below the fold)

What are common chemical components in invertebrate venom?

Peptides, enzymes, biogenic amines.

While your Sting Pain Index makes for an infinitely better drinking story, could their ever be a lab-based chemistry based approach to ranking Hymenopteran stings, like the Scoville Scale for chili peppers?

Yes, if we could develop a good assay technique to connect electrodes directly to pain transmitting nerves and relate the voltage values recorded to our sensation of pain level.

It's been awhile since you revisited your Pain Index. Would there be anything you would add or change since you initially designed it? Any new bites to rank?

Yes, I need to add to it; that is, update the list. Nothing entirely earth shakingly extreme, just much-needed fleshing out. This will take some time and is a project on the list for writing next year.

Is there a difference between venoms that are meant to defend the insect and venoms that are meant to kill prey?

Definitely. For maximal effect, venoms to defend need a component to induce pain, with or without a toxic component. To simply kill prey (makes handling easier), the ideal venom would be non-painful, yet very quickly toxic.

Is there a correlation between the potency of a sting and the aggressiveness of an insect?

Definitely, yes. The more aggressive species, almost without exception, have the most toxic and lethal venoms.

Is there anything to this honeybee venom therapy for arthritis? If so, what would be the possible mechanism?

The literature suggests the answer is clearly yes. No one knows the exact mechanism at play, and that is part of the problem. The scientific community tends not to accept results for which we have no mechanistic answers; that is, how does it work? My own opinion is that it stimulates the immune system via the effronteries of the venom components, and in so doing, helps tune the immune system to function properly. A properly tuned immune system does not attack "self".

During the 1990s, I feared two animals, Jaws and Africanized honey bees ('killer bees'). Was the concern among entomologists as serious as it was on A Current Affair?

Don't know, but most entomologist viewed the story on killer bees more as a soap opera than a meaningful and serious risk to human life.

My brother Benny wants to bite your arm and have you rate it. Is this a possibility?

Does he have HIV or hepatitis? Don't think I would want to be bitten by anything. (Editor's note: Benny does in fact have one of the aforementioned viruses! Bet you can't guess which!)

Anything else you would like to share with ScienceBlogs readers?

Science should help to solve the mysteries of the universe, improve society, and be fun.

A special thank you to Dr. Justin O. Schmidt for sharing his years of painfully accumulated knowledge with Zooillogix's readers.


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Alan Kelly,

I'm going to have to say that Benny is infected with hepatitis. What do I win?

Congratulations! You get to share a strawberry milkshake with Benny at Johnny Rockets, 1946 Fillmore St., SF! Two tips: wear leather and bring your own straw!

I've been trying to contact Dr. Schmidt. From what I hear the sting of a wheelbug should be ranked at the top. Lastly, YouTube and Animal Planet are full of people who let themselves get stung by bullet ants, yet know one seems anxious to get tagged by a tarantula hawk.
Oh, and one more thing. Why do bullet wasps lack warning coloration?

One-Tarantula hawks are not the least bit aggressive towards humans,that being said-Tarantula Hawks have no known predators, nor has anyone captured one defending against a potential predator. Two-Having spent fiteen years working with AHB's (killer Bees) primarily when they are in defense mode and having been stung countless thousands of times a significant number of AHB stings is far more painful than a single , or even two or three Taratula Hawk stings.-I have been voluntarily stung by Tatatula hawks both on camera for TV shows. -Example- John Lydon's Megabug series where I applied a Tarantula Hawk to my left for fore arm twice and right forearm once resulting in three stings. on my left arm one the centimeterlong stigers remained imbedded in my flesh/muscle.-Pain duration and intesity-Stings continued to worsen over the next 24-36 hours while affected area radiated away from sting site into hand and fingers causing partail denervation lasting months. I continue to experiment with a wide variety of stings and bites.-anyone care to discuss the giant sonoran Centipede?

By Kent H. Griffith (not verified) on 03 Mar 2009 #permalink

Impressive. I'll track down that Megabug DVD, can't wait to witness that scene, and BTW thanks for the perspective vis-a-vis numerous KB stings vs. one-two T hawk ones. So what about that wheel bug? Does it belong up there with the bullet ant and the tarantula hawk? I commend you for having the fortitude to get stung by that T hawk. Do you draw the line at scorpions, lionfish, weevers, stonefish and the like?

I will gladly take 50 wasp stings to unmentionable areas rather than experience the rostrum of another assassin(wheel) bug to my hand. I am not a fearful person, but the mere site of another one to this day sends chills up and down my spine.

Does that answer a question?