Justin Schmidt is fascinated by pain. Not just any pain — specifically the kind inflicted by stinging bees, wasps and ants. In fact, during his years as an entomologist for the Southwestern Biological Institute and the University of Arizona, Schmidt has withstood at least 1,000 stings from dozens of the world’s most notorious pain producers. Some were voluntary and some were not.
Why would anyone do this? As you’ll see in the following interview, there’s no simple answer. Call it part scientific curiosity, part quest for adventure and part love for a slice of nature that most of us try to avoid at all costs.
Schmidt’s lifetime of pain has produced some tangible rewards. One is the Schmidt Sting Pain Index, which ranks stings from 78 different species on a scale of below 1 (hardly worth mentioning) to a nearly unbearable 4-plus.
Schmidt has personally felt all but a couple, and his descriptions of the specific sensations produced by each type of venom and the apparatus that delivers it are downright poetic — like describing a fine chardonnay. For instance, sweat bee stings (ranked 1) are “light and ephemeral, almost fruity, like a tiny spark has singed a single hair on your arm.” On the other hand, bullet ant stings (the most excruciating of them all) are “pure intense brilliant pain, like walking over flaming charcoal with a 3-inch nail embedded in your heel.”
Here are a few of the insects on Schmidt’s pain scale, which earned him the 2015 Ig Nobel Prize (a parody of the Nobel Prize honoring humorous or offbeat scientific achievements).
Watch this video for more on Schmidt’s scale:
Schmidt recently paid homage to the electrifying insect world he loves in a book called “The Sting of the Wild.” In it, readers journey into the complex lives of pain-inflicting insects (and incidentally, only the females sting). Schmidt explains how and why these creatures attack — sometimes for defense, sometimes to hunt prey and sometimes to provide for their young. Tarantula hawk wasps, for example, paralyze tarantulas with their venom and lay one egg in each spider’s abdomen. When a larva hatches, it drinks the blood of its still-living paralyzed host and eventually consumes the whole thing.
Schmidt also weaves in his own personal tales of daring and adventure, starting with his first stings as a 5 year old after sitting on a thatching ant mound. The angry swarm that stormed up his pants were merciless, but Schmidt couldn’t help but be impressed by their forceful ability to fight back. And he’s never stopped being impressed.
We talked to Schmidt about embracing nature’s often searing pain and what wild, stinging things can teach us.
MNN: People might say you're a glutton for punishment. Yet after reading your book, it seems like part of you actually enjoys getting stung and being close to something capable of producing such pain. How do you explain this dichotomy?
Justin Schmidt: I think it's a little bit like being in a rugby game. The dichotomy is you're getting hit, stomped on and pushed around. You don't really like it, but if you win the game, that makes up for everything. I think that's why I can do this when "normal" people wouldn't. At the end I've gotten something that's really exciting to me — data — and I've learned something new about the biology of a species I may not have seen before. I can put up with it because there's a reward at the end of the tunnel.
Are there any insects you still want to be stung by?
That’s an interesting question. Yes, one is an ant from the Congo that I'm really curious about scientifically. They live on acacia trees and protect them from elephants and giraffes by stinging them if they damage or try to eat the trees. We have an analog in Central America that does the same thing — the bullhorn acacia (1.8 on the Schmidt Sting Pain Index). The reports of this African ant make its sting sound a lot worse. I'm wondering if it's just being reported by people who haven't been stung by as many things as I have so they don't have as broad a comparative perspective, or if it really is that painful, which is really exciting too. Either way it’s a win-win. I can't really lose.
The sting might be a 5 on the pain scale.
I hope not! I don't know if I could live through that.
What’s the importance of your pain index?
There are a couple things the pain scale does. First, the human mind and psyche needs something to strive for and learn. Our human spirits need adventure and to get out and see beautiful things. We don't have to do everything for practical reasons. Things can be done for fun. We go to the moon and space, not necessarily because we're going to get rich or get more food in our tummy, but because it's an adventure. That’s part of why we need nature. I think the pain scale provides one element of that.
Then there's another angle — it may help us find new ways to treat chronic pain from cancer or arthritis. Venom contains very clean, pain-inducing components, so it’s not too destructive. Notice that when you get stung by anything, you don't lose a finger or an arm. You just have some pain and swelling, and it goes away in a day or two at most. That's an advantage in helping us find new ways to treat pain so we don’t have to keep feeding people opioids or steroids that muck up their bodies. Venom can be used to create pain in nerve tissue cultures without killing the cultures. The pain scale tells us how much pain is caused, and we know how long it lasts. There’s no point in testing sweat bee venom because it isn’t too painful and doesn’t last long. We want to test something that really hurts. Tarantula hawks are a 4, but it’s short-term pain. Bullet ant venom produces 4-plus pain that lasts 12 to 36 hours. Knowing this, chemists and medical people can choose the optimal chemicals to block a specific type of pain rather than just saying, “Let’s just try this.” That’s awfully inefficient. I’m currently collaborating with researchers around the country on this.
A tarantula hawk wasp stings and paralyzes a tarantula, which will be eaten alive by the wasp’s larva. (Photo: David Crummey/flickr)
When you get stung do you ever worry about severe damage or even death?
I don’t really worry about getting one sting or 10. Even with 100, you might end up in the hospital, but you’ll survive. The only situation where I worry is around Africanized honeybees (invasive “killer bees” that are more prone to attack than similar-looking but typically docile European honeybees). They don't kill very often. There have been maybe a dozen deaths since they arrived here some 25 years ago. But Africanized honeybees are very dangerous because they can have a colony of 30,000 or 40,000, and they swarm. Yellow jackets also swarm, but their colonies are usually only 2,000 to 3,000, and you might get only 20 or 30 stings. But with killer bees you can get 2,000 to 5,000 stings. That’s a different matter. You’re going to be a dead puppy pretty quick.
We had a guy die in the Phoenix area recently. We don’t know the exact details, but it looks like he was stung around the eyes as a result of flapping his arms and other behaviors that were not helpful. People try to swat at them like flies, which is a bad idea. It attracts more attention, and more bees come out. It takes away from time you could be getting out of there. It seems the guy tripped and fell. He was probably in pain and gave up, and the colony just kept stinging him until he died. That’s why whenever I'm with killer bees, I'm in a full armored bee suit.
So it's best to run?
Yes. Don't flap. Lower your head so they can't see your face or eyes or mouth, and get out of there. Just move! Don't be a fool or a hero.
Won’t they follow you?
Sometimes for a quarter of a mile or so. But you know what? If you're a quarter-mile away and you've gotten 50 stings, you're alive. It's not fun. But at least you're going to be able to tell your grandchildren about this horrible incident you had.
What if they build a hive near your house?
Call a professional. If you're in areas where there aren't Africanized honeybees (they’re mostly in the southwestern United States), call a beekeeper. Chances are, he can catch these European honeybees and have another hive. If you’re in places like Arizona or southern California with killer bees, forget the beekeeper because nobody wants them. Have an exterminator come out.
It seems kind of unfair to kill them just because they’ve built in the wrong place.
Well, if you have kids or dogs or horses, which are often unruly, they can end up on the short end of the deal. You want to get rid of the killer bees. If you don't have kids or pets, and there’s a beehive high up in your home’s attic area and the bees aren’t causing any trouble, you can just leave them there. Don’t bother them, and they’ll usually live and let live.
Paper wasps aren’t usually a problem either if you don't antagonize them. They make the gray, honeycombed-shaped nests that are commonly underneath eaves. They'll look at you and watch you, but if you don't mess with them, they're not going to bother you. They're actually quite beneficial. They eat tomato horn worms and cabbage worms that get into your garden.
Yellow jackets eat a lot of flies. So do bald-faced hornets. So if there's a nest in a corner of your yard or in a shrub, just leave it. They’ll be catching flies.
Most people hate having bees around, but you’re advocating living in harmony.
That’s right. You can even make it an adventure. Watch them from a distance with binoculars. Or if you're braver, get closer (but not in their flight path) to see how many fly in and out and what they’re catching and bringing in. Make it a natural history adventure, like birdwatching.
It’s even more fun when you can show the beauty to youngsters. Kids are so much more enthusiastic than adults. Turn it into a little science project. They’re just sponges for knowledge.
It sounds like you’ve maintained your own childlike fascination.
My motto is never grow up.
Does that work for you?
Pretty much. Kids are born scientists, and scientists are often kids who never grew up. I have to act like a rational adult most of the time, but when I'm out doing science, I can be a kid again. That's my joy. I can worry about the mortgage when I get back from the field.
Learn more about Schmidt’s work in this video: