The King of Sting

I’ve heard about the Schmidt Pain Scale before, having lived and worked in the tropics for long enough to have seen first-hand, and countless times, two of the insects with the most painful stings on his index: the bullet ant and the tarantula hawk. Of course, I haven’t sought out their stings and will actively avoid the two hymenopterans as much as possible, but Justin Schmidt has been doing the opposite with insects around the world for years. From the TNC Cool Green Science blog:

A yellow jacket just stung you. You jump, scream and shout expletives.

Or, if you’re Justin Schmidt, you describe the sting as such: “Hot and smoky, almost irreverent. Imagine W.C. Fields extinguishing a cigar on your tongue.”

Schmidt might be called the King of Sting: He’s spent much of his career researching bees, wasps and ants, including the chemical make-up of their venom. He’s traveled to six continents to track down stinging insects.

And he’s been stung. A lot. His Schmidt Pain Scale for Stinging Insectsassigns a pain rating for each sting, and also includes a description of each sting experience that reads like wine tasting notes for pain.

Fortunately for us, Schmidt now tells his story in The Sting of the Wild(Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016), a rollicking look at the wild world of stinging insects, their social lives, their defenses and how humans react to them. It’s hard to imagine a nature book being more fascinating and fun. And yes, it includes his complete pain scale with descriptions of each sting, worth the price of the book alone.

Schmidt is a biologist at the Southwestern Biological Institute and is affiliated with the Department of Entomology at the University of Arizona. His fascination with insects that give most people the heebie-jeebies began when as a kid he threw rocks at a hornet nest. With a background in chemistry, his fascination led him to studying the components of venom and how it works on humans.

One of the first things Schmidt wants to make clear is that he does not actually enjoy being stung.

“People want to be entertained. They love to see violence and pain,” he told me in a recent interview. “There are all these extreme shows that emphasize this now. It is convenient to squeeze me into that genre.”

He’s not just after shock value. His interest in stings is rooted in scientific curiosity, and a deep fascination with the colorful, interesting insects that also happen to pack a potent wallop when we threaten them.

“When a honey bee stings me, I curse just like anyone else would,” he told me in a recent phone conversation. “When a new insect stings me, it is admittedly kind of interesting for the data it provides. But when it’s a honey bee, an insect that has stung me 1,000 times, it is pure misery.”

He attributes his long list of stings partially to laziness: when working in the tropics, he often decides to forego the effort and sweaty discomfort of putting on a bee suit. Often, he needs to observe how bees act when they’re aggravated. A recipe for pain.

Read the rest of the original blog post here.

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