Science & Technology

This Scientist Created a Pain Scale by Letting Bugs Sting Him

A sting from a honeybee is awful; a sting from a hornet is worse. That's probably the extent of the knowledge most of us have about how painful insect stings can be. But for entomologist Justin Schmidt, whose occupation takes him throughout the world dealing with every flavor of stinging insect, stings are a part of life. Schmidt put this occupational hazard to good use with the Schmidt Sting Pain Index, a scale that rates the pain of 78 different stinging species — with poetic flourish, to boot.

A Sting By Any Other Name

Schmidt was a chemistry student in his 20s when he received the book "Wasp Farm" by Howard Evans from his then-wife Debbie for Christmas. It made him rediscover his childhood fascination with insects and led him to study them in grad school. While collecting specimens of harvester ants to study their venom, he and Debbie were stung. The pain lasted for hours and felt unlike anything he had ever experienced — and Schmidt was fascinated. He hit the road to collect more species of harvester ants and measure their individual levels of venom toxicity.

"Pain, the experience of pain, is a body's warning system that damage has occurred, is occurring or is about to occur," Schmidt explained to The New York Times Magazine. "But pain itself is not the same thing as damage." For example, the venom in a honeybee causes localized pain, but it also travels to the heart and causes cardiac damage. That's why a swarm of bees can kill you. A sting from the wasp known as a tarantula hawk hurts much worse than that of a honeybee but causes minimal damage. That means you can't judge the pain of a sting from chemistry alone. You need the subjective experience. That's why Schmidt decided to create his pain scale.

"The Connoisseur Of Pain"

Though some think of Schmidt as the guy who had a bunch of insects sting him for science, that's not strictly accurate. Every sting on his scale was experienced within the scope of his work — that is, they were side effects, not the main goal. (To see true martyrdom for science, check out Michael Smith's study into honeybee sting pain. He had bees sting him in 25 locations on his body, three times each. Yes, including the place you're thinking.) That just makes the breadth of Schmidt's index even more impressive. Of course, subjective pain ratings are by definition less than scientific, and the single subject, cornucopia of sting locations, and small sample size makes Schmidt's ratings hard to extrapolate to what you or I might experience.

But the index serves a purpose, if only to show that sting pain and venom toxicity aren't always related.

Below, you can check out a few examples from the Schmidt Sting Pain Index, some of which can be found in his book "The Sting of the Wild." His scale goes from 0 to 4. For a baseline, he used the pain of a honeybee sting and rated it a 2. Most people have experience with that pain, so they have something to compare the others to. His ratings are useful, but it's his sommelier-like descriptions that keep you coming back.

Water-walking wasp: 1

"Clever, but trivial? A little like magic in that you cannot quite figure out the difference between pain and illusion."

Paper wasp: 1.5

"Burning, throbbing, and lonely. A single drop of superheated frying oil landed on your arm."

Baldfaced hornet: 2

"Rich, hearty, slightly crunchy. Similar to getting your hand mashed in a revolving door."

Nocturnal hornet: 2.5

"Rude, insulting. An ember from your campfire is glued to your forearm."

Giant paper wasp: 3

"There are gods, and they do throw thunderbolts. Poseidon just rammed his trident into your breast."

Pepsis wasp: 4

"Blinding, fierce, shockingly electric. A running hair dyer has been dropped into your bubble bath."

Bullet ant: 4+

"Pure, intense, brilliant pain. Like walking over flaming charcoal with a three-inch nail embedded in your heel."

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Read more pain poetry in Justin Schmidt's book, "The Sting of the Wild." We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Ashley Hamer September 16, 2017

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