One day while Justin Schmidt was riding his bicycle, something went terribly wrong.
“I was huffing and puffing, so my mouth was open, and this damn honeybee flew right in and stung me on the tongue,” he says. He tumbled to the ground, flailing in agony. Later he described the sting as “immediate, noisome, visceral, debilitating. For 10 minutes, life is not worth living.”
It wasn’t the worst sting possible (we’ll get to that), but its intensity surprised him—which is surprising in itself, because Schmidt, a University of Arizona entomologist, has been stung over a thousand times and is famous for developing the Schmidt Pain Scale for Stinging Insects, a four-point scale with descriptions of agony that read like hoity-toity tasting notes for Scotch.
The red paper wasp, for instance, rates a 3 with pain that’s “caustic and burning, with a distinctly bitter aftertaste. Like spilling a beaker of hydrochloric acid on a paper cut.”
Normally a honeybee sting is nothing to Schmidt. “Boring,” he says. But on the tongue, it was a whole different matter. Clearly, where you’re stung can matter as much as what stings you.
So when a Cornell graduate student named Michael Smith contacted him a few years ago with a plan to sting himself all over his body to map the pain, Schmidt had some advice: Don’t sting yourself in the eye, kid. But otherwise, go for it.
Smith, who studies bee biology, had been comparing notes with beekeepers and realized that everyone knew stings hurt worse in some places than others, but no one had ever systematically measured the pain. Would pain vary reliably on different body parts? Why do some places hurt worse? “Someone’s got to do it,” he says, “so as a scientist you go out there and make it happen. It’s curiosity; that’s what motivates you.”
He proceeded to sting himself with honeybees multiple times in each of 24 places on his body, from the top of his head to the tip of his middle toe, and he didn’t dodge the scary bits—the nipple, scrotum, and penis. What resulted was the most scientific look ever at the worst places to be stung.
Combine that with Schmidt’s pain index by insect, and you’ve got a good roundup of worst-case scenarios for stings. And that begs a question: What’s the ultimate sting? The apotheosis of insect-induced agony?
A honeybee leaves its stinger in a victim’s arm. Photographs in this article are courtesy of the book The Sting of the Wild [Image: Justin O. Schmidt]
When I asked both scientists for the worst possible combination, they agreed that a bullet ant to the nostril would probably top the chart for intensity. Schmidt gave the bullet ant a 4 out of 4 on his index and describes the sting as “like walking over flaming charcoal with a three-inch nail embedded in your heel.”
Smith found that the two most painful places to be stung are the nostril and the upper lip, followed by the penis shaft. The penis got more attention in press coverage, but Smith says “the nostril is really where it’s at.” And it makes sense that bees often target the nose, along with the mouth and eyes—they’re crucial to breathing and vision. “Pain isn’t for nothing,” Smith says; it motivates us to protect our vital functions.
But there’s one thing that Schmidt says might be even more horrific. “A warrior wasp to the nose or lip would be up there,” he says, and in some ways worse because you’d have intense swelling that could last for days. “You’d get inflated and red, and you get the misery down the line.”
The bullet ant, in contrast, doesn’t cause much swelling, and in fact doesn’t even leave much of a mark.
“It’s almost disappointing to go through that and be rendered a babbling idiot, crying, and not even have a big red spot to show people,” Schmidt says. “They take away even that satisfaction.”
Despite the pain they’ve endured, both scientists say it’s worth it to learn about some of the world’s most fascinating animals. “I’m living the dream,” Smith says. “I’m working with bees.” Since his pain research, he has finished one of the most exhaustive studies ever of the inner workings of a beehive, measuring every detail of a colony from birth to death. And now he’s figuring out what triggers bee puberty—yes, bees and almost all other animals have some kind of puberty.
I asked Schmidt what he thinks is the coolest thing he’s learned about stinging insects. “I’ve learned a strange thing,” he says. “The relationship between stinging insects and humans is really about us. It’s psychological warfare—and they’re winning. They’ve got us terrified of them.”