Stung By 83 Different Insects, Biologist Rates His Pain On A Scale Of 1 To — OW! | KUOW News and Information

Stung By 83 Different Insects, Biologist Rates His Pain On A Scale Of 1 To — OW!

May 15, 2016
Originally published on June 15, 2016 4:48 am

If you think your job is painful, try spending a workday with Justin Schmidt.

Schmidt is an entomologist who focuses on a group of insects called Hymenoptera — we know them as stinging ants, wasps and bees.

Schmidt has traveled all over the world looking for bugs ... and getting stung by them. The result of his work is an alarmingly comprehensive pain index, ranking 83 insect stings on a spectrum of 1 to 4.

For example, the red fire ant, native to South America is a 1: "Sharp, sudden, mildly alarming," Schmidt writes. "Like walking across a shag carpet and reaching for the light switch."

Far worse is the tarantula hawk, which clocks in at a 4: "Blinding, fierce, shockingly electric. A running hair dryer has just been dropped into your bubble bath."

As for whether he wants to be stung, Schmidt says "want" isn't quite the right way to put it. "Want is kind of a dual word," he tells NPR's Linda Wertheimer. "I want the data, but I don't want the sting."

Schmidt has written a book about his travels (and travails) called The Sting of the Wild: The Story of the Man Who Got Stung for Science.

Interview Highlights

On the giant mandarin Japanese hornet

These things are about 2 inches long — they're huge, absolutely enormous. And I was so worried about getting stung by those that I actually succeeded in doing a really nice couple of studies on them and never got stung. So I guess you could say that was disappointing in the respect that I'm missing a very valuable data point, but I'm also still in tact.

On bullet ants

Bullet ants are wonderfully beautiful organisms. They live going from Nicaragua down to about southern Brazil. They live in the forest and nest usually on the bottom of the forest floor. But they go up into the canopy, way, way up into the top of the trees and that's where they forage for prey.

They're black and very stocky looking — you look at them and you say: That's kind of like a dinosaur, that's a very primitive looking ant. But, boy, don't let that deceive you because these ants are really, truly acrobats. You often think of big ants as being sluggards and slow ... don't make that mistake with bullet ants.

On his favorite — the harvester ant

They have the most toxic known insect venom. It's really potent — something like 40 times stronger than a Western Diamondback Rattlesnake. The good news, of course, is that they have very little of it. They have this extremely long, lasting pain.

They're the only insect sting venom that causes the hair on your arm where you've been stung to stand up kind of like the hair on the back of a dog's neck when it's frightened. And it causes sweating. These are all kind of neurological things which are unique to it. It's got very complex biochemistry that still, after 35 years, we have lots of mysteries left to discover with them.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

We're going to talk now to the king of sting. I borrowed that sobriquet from the back cover of Justin Schmidt's new book. The book is called "The Sting Of The Wild." Schmidt is an entomologist, a student of bugs, especially Hymenoptera, a collection of stinging insects we know as ants, wasps and bees.

One result of his travels in pursuit of bugs which sting a little and bugs which sting a whole lot, he's developed a pain index for insect stings of this hemisphere, together with a flirty little paragraph describing what each one feels like. Dr. Schmidt joins us from Arizona Public Media in Tucson. Welcome to our program.

JUSTIN SCHMIDT: Thank you. It's a pleasure to be speaking with you.

LINDA WERTHEIMER: Now, I wanted to ask you about your pain scale. You rate pain from one to four with four being the worst pain. I gather this is based on personal experience?

JUSTIN SCHMIDT: The pain scale is pretty much mostly my own experience 'cause I'm the person who's been chasing a diversity of species more than anybody else.

LINDA WERTHEIMER: But you - you want these bugs to sting you, right? I mean, you invite them. You insist on it.

JUSTIN SCHMIDT: Want is kind of a dual word.

LINDA WERTHEIMER: (Laughter) Yeah.

JUSTIN SCHMIDT: I want the data, but I don't want the sting. Unfortunately, I don't know of any solution to that problem. So my solution has been to just charge in and, well, in the process, usually one of them obliges and stings you.

LINDA WERTHEIMER: (Laughter) So what was the scariest attempt you made to meet and be stung by one of your little bitty buddies?

JUSTIN SCHMIDT: Well, one of the scariest, which I never got stung, was working with the giant Mandarin Japanese hornets.

LINDA WERTHEIMER: Holy cow.

JUSTIN SCHMIDT: These things are about two inches long. They're huge, absolutely enormous. And I was so worried about getting stung by those that I actually succeeded in doing a really nice couple of studies on them and never got stung. So that was, I guess you could say, disappointing in the respect that I'm missing a very valuable data point. But I'm also still intact.

LINDA WERTHEIMER: When you're trying to work out the pain scale - so you take the initial pain and then you also consider whether it lasts, whether it remains sore. Give us a sense of what this scale means.

JUSTIN SCHMIDT: Yeah, the scale relates only to the immediate acute pain, the first five minutes or 10 minutes, whatever, of the sting. Now the exceptions are some of them don't back off, like the harvester ants. They will sting you and they will hurt from four to eight hours. And so then I include the entire time that they're hurting. And of course, bullet ants are another exception that lasts 12 to 24 hours.

LINDA WERTHEIMER: That's the ant which gets a four and it gets its own chapter in your book, the bullet ant. Now, I don't think I've ever seen one. Tell me about them.

JUSTIN SCHMIDT: Bullet ants are wonderfully beautiful organisms. They live going from about Nicaragua down to southern Brazil. They're black and very stocky looking. I mean, you look at them and you say, this is kind of like a dinosaur. This is a very primitive looking ant.

But boy, don't let that deceive you because these ants are real - truly acrobats. You often think of big ants as kind of being sluggards and slow. Oh, no. Don't make that mistake with bullet ants 'cause you do that once, and you'll learn you were wrong.

LINDA WERTHEIMER: We've just had a brief tour of some of the ones that scared me. But I assume that in the population of Hymenoptera, which is my new favorite word, do you have a favorite insect?

JUSTIN SCHMIDT: I think my favorites are actually probably the harvester ants.

LINDA WERTHEIMER: Oh, I read about those, too.

JUSTIN SCHMIDT: And you could say that's kind of a sentimental favorite. They have the most toxic known insect venom. It's really potent, something like 40 times stronger than the Western diamondback rattlesnake. The good news is, of course, they have very little of it. They have this extremely long-lasting pain.

They're the only insect sting venom that causes the hair on your arm where you've been stung to stand up kind of like the hair on the back of a dog's neck when it's frightened. And it causes sweating. These are all kind of neurological things which are unique to it. It's got very complex biochemistry that still, even after 35 years, we have lots of mysteries left to discover with them.

LINDA WERTHEIMER: Justin Schmidt's book is called "The Sting Of The Wild." Thank you very much for talking to us.

JUSTIN SCHMIDT: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.