The painful development of the Schmidt Sting Pain Index

The Schmidt pain index was created by entomologist Justin Schmidt to rank the degree of pain caused by the bites and stings of various insects. 

And how did he develop this scale? By subjecting himself to each and every bite and sting. And if that wasn’t enough, he wrote up delightfully descriptive summaries of each one.

Ants, Bees, and Wasps – Oh My!

The Schmidt pain index specifically ranks the bites and stings of insects of the order Hymenoptera, which includes sawflies, ants, bees, and wasps. 

Schmidt’s research into the degree of pain caused by these insects arose from research into the sociality of the insects in this order. The idea was that as ants, bees, and wasps began to congregate in large groups, they became more of a target to predators looking for a large meal. They had to evolve defense mechanisms that would cause their predators pain and deter attacks.

In his paper “Evolutionary responses of solitary and social Hymenoptera to predation by primates and overwhelmingly powerful vertebrate predators” Schmidt concluded that painful bites and stings gave these creatures the ability to continue living together in highly social groups, which conferred a number of benefits such as cooperative food storage, the ability to share information within the colony, and the complexity that can be achieved when individuals specialize in unique jobs.

Because he needed to study the degree of pain caused by these bites and stings meant to deter predators, he created his own index to rate the relative pain of various insects. 

The Man Who Got Stung for Science

Justin Orvel Schmidt was born in 1947 and died earlier this year at the age of 75. 

Schmidt worked for years at the Carl Hayden Bee Research Center in Tucson. There, he studied the behavior, nutrition, chemical communication, and physiology of honey bees.

In 2006 he moved on to the Southwest Biological Institute, where he shifted his focus to chemical and behavioral defenses of both insects and arachnids. 

Over the course of his life, Schmidt deliberately experienced over one thousand stings and bites from around one hundred species of insects. For science!

Superstar Entomologist and an Excellent Writer to Boot

Here’s a sampling of the descriptions that accompany Schmidt’s ratings, which go from zero to four. They’re taken from his 2016 book The Sting of the Wild.

The following three are the lowest rating (besides a zero, meaning no effect on humans) of one.

Red fire ant: Sharp, sudden, mildly alarming.  Like walking across a shag carpet and reaching for the light switch.

Tropical fire ant: You should have learned, but the carpet is the same, and when you again reach for the light switch, the shock mocks you.

Southern fire ant: It happens on the third day, as you reach for the light switch, and you’re wondering when you will ever learn.

Things take a sudden turn when we reach a Schmidt rating of one-point-five.

Suturing army ant: A cut on your elbow, stitched with a rusty needle.

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

By level two, he’s comparing the pain to war wounds.

Glorious velvet ant: Instantaneous, like the surprise of being stabbed.  Is this what shrapnel feels like?

Large tropical black ant: Exquisitely sharp and expertly clean.  Broadway’s favorite barber selects his next victim.

Western yellow jacket: Hot and smoky, almost irreverent.  Imagine W.C. Fields extinguishing a cigar on your tongue.

Western honey bee: Burning, corrosive, but you can handle it.  A flaming match head lands on your arm and is quenched with lye and then with sulphuric acid.

Artistic wasp: Pure, then messy, then corrosive. Love and marriage followed by divorce.

From there it’s on to two-point-five. Why did he use a four-point system only to wedge insects in between numbers? Irrelevant. Just enjoy the vivid descriptions. It’s like you’re there!

Trap-jaw ant: Instantaneous and excruciating.  A rat trap snaps your index fingernail.

Pain level three is mostly wasps, but the occasional ant makes an appearance. 

Maricopa harvester ant: After eight unrelenting hours of drilling into that ingrown toenail, you find the drill wedged into the toe.

Schmidt’s original pain index only had one insect – the bullet ant – at number four, but two more have been added since.

Warrior wasp: Torture. You are chained in the flow of an active volcano.  Why did I start this list?

Tarantula hawk wasp: Blinding, fierce, shockingly electric.  A running hair dryer has just been dropped into your bubble bath.

Bullet ant: Pure, intense, brilliant pain.  Like walking over flaming charcoal with a 3-inch nail embedded in your heel.

“If I made a 5 on the scale,” Schmidt said, “it would be just the bullet ant and nothing else.” He ranked it above the warrior wasp and tarantula hawk wasp because the intense pain lasts for a grueling 36 hours. 

The Sting of the Wild

In addition to his famous pain scale and delightful descriptions, Schmidt’s 2016 book offered a variety of facts about members of the order Hymenoptera. For example…

Every wasp or bee that’s ever hurt you was female, because the males of their species have no stingers. Some birds, such as kingbirds, are able to eat bunches of bees by picking out only the males.

Intrigued, Schmidt decided to taste the bees himself (because of course he did). 

The females were awful. (He did take the stingers off first, by the way, as an inadvertent bee sting to the tongue in the past had rendered life “not worth living” for ten minutes afterward.) He described the taste as “nasty, crunchy fingernail polish”. 

The males, on the other hand, had a very pleasant crunch and flavor. The males lack the large exocrine glands and pheromones that give the females that turpentine taste.

He also shared that these species’ defense mechanisms are triggered by smell rather than sight or sound – or even touch. By breathing through a long tube, he was able to approach a swarm of Africanized honey bees – also known as killer bees – and even touch a swarm without provoking them. But as soon as he dropped the tube and breathed in their direction, the hive “exploded like someone set off a bomb in the middle of them.” 

The smell of breath, he explained, tells the bees that some fearsome mammal is coming to devour their home and their family.

If you’re ever in danger from a swarm, his advice was to hold your breath for as long as you can while moving away as quickly as possible.

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