The pain is the ad. The toxicity is the truth.
August 4, 2011 8:52 AM   Subscribe

Dr. Justin O. Schmidt likes insects of the persuasive sort, the ones that bite, sting or squirt venom in your eyes. In the course of his entomological studies all over the world, he has met the defenses of about 150 different insects, and he has rated them, creating the Schmidt Sting Pain Index. On the low end: sweat bees, whose sting is "light, ephemeral, almost fruity. A tiny spark has singed a single hair on your arm." On the high end: Bullet ants, whose venomous bites cause "pure, intense, brilliant pain. Like fire-walking over flaming charcoal with a 3-inch rusty nail in your heel." And it can last for hours, leaving you "quivering and still screaming from these peristaltic waves" [of pain].

More from Schmidt: an interview with Frontiers on PBS, about Africanized bees and selective bee breeding; interview with Science Blogs, on the theories of why bites and stings hurt like they do; and Schmidt co-authored Insect Defenses: Adaptive Mechanisms and Strategies of Prey and Predators (Google Books preview).
posted by filthy light thief (49 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite

 
When I become an insect, I think I will opt for Tarantula Hawk. Because fuck tarantulas. Also, the language used in the index is exactly right for conjuring the depth of pain involved. I cringed at the ingrown toenail bit.
posted by Wyatt at 9:00 AM on August 4, 2011


Sweat bees sting?? I've just been batting those guys away with unconcern, and telling my kids to do the same, "because they don't sting". How much light, fruity pain have we been mere inches from?!
posted by DU at 9:06 AM on August 4, 2011 [7 favorites]


The Satere-Mawe people of Brazil use intentional bullet ant stings as part of their initiation rites to become a warrior. The ants are first rendered unconscious by submerging them in a natural sedative and then hundreds of them are woven into a glove made out of leaves (which resembles a large oven mitt), stinger facing inward. When the ants regain consciousness, a boy slips the glove onto his hand. The goal of this initiation rite is to keep the glove on for a full ten minutes. When finished, the boy's hand and part of his arm are temporarily paralyzed because of the ant venom, and he may shake uncontrollably for days. The only "protection" provided is a coating of charcoal on the hands, supposedly to confuse the ants and inhibit their stinging. To fully complete the initiation, however, the boys must go through the ordeal a total of 20 times over the course of several months or even years.

I'd like to see Paul Atreides litany-against-fear his way through that.
posted by Iridic at 9:09 AM on August 4, 2011 [26 favorites]


As even pain goes better with Stephen Fry, here's QI on the index.

As much as I enjoy hearty, crunchy things, I will continue to avoid the wrath of the bald face hornets.
posted by Cold Lurkey at 9:21 AM on August 4, 2011 [3 favorites]


Another vote for the Tarantula Hawk. I had one fly right in front of me once, before I knew what it was. Only later after some interweb searching did I realize how close to doom I had been that day. Fricking awesome insect though. Good post!
posted by Godspeed.You!Black.Emperor.Penguin at 9:25 AM on August 4, 2011


Yeah having seen a video of the bullet ant ritual where a guy is crying and then passes out because the pain is too intense, that stuff is definitely hardcore.
posted by vuron at 9:27 AM on August 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


Other pain scales:

The Starr sting pain scale (PDF) which, in classic steam engine time manner, came out almost at the same time as Schmidt's and is very nearly identical, except that Starr wasn't identifying his own experiences with stings, but instead suggesting a system for exploring the pain of insect stings, based on the testimonies of people who have been stung.

The Hardy-Wolff-Goodell scale: Developed by three researchers who "very precisely calibrated radiant heat stimuli directed to the foreheads or hands of trained experimental subjects" and then asked them how much it hurt. It's gradation of pain was called a "dol," leading to the creation of ...

The Dolorimeter: "Dolorimeters apply steady pressure, heat, or electrical stimulation to some area, or move a joint or other body part and determine what level of heat or pressure or electric current or amount of movement produces a sensation of pain." Want one? You can but one commercially! Hours of fun for you and your friends!

The McGill pain index: An index that compares chronic pain to traumatic non-chronic pain experiences. How does arthritis hurt? About the same as a cut. How about Complex regional pain syndrome? About the same as having a limb amputated.

The Alder Hey Triage Pain Score: A mechanism for determining how much pain children are in based on their facial expressions. Related: The FLACC scale.

Brief Pain Inventory: A scale based on self-reported pain, questioning how much pain a patient is currently in, and how much pain they have been in over the past few days or week.

The classic technique used by EMTs to determine pain, SOCRATES: It's an acronym, and stands for

Site - Where is the pain?
Onset - When did the pain start, and was it sudden or gradual?
Character - What is the pain like? An ache? Stabbing?
Radiation - Does the pain radiate anywhere? (See also Radiation.)
Associations - Any other signs or symptoms associated with the pain?
Time course - Does the pain follow any pattern?
Exacerbating/Relieving factors - Does anything change the pain?
Severity - How bad is the pain?

Additionally: Here is a terrific article from Time Magazine from 1956 discussing the difficulties and importance of measuring pain, which is complicated by the fact that people experience it differently, and react to it differently.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 9:33 AM on August 4, 2011 [22 favorites]


when it comes to pain, the man has a way with words:
A wasp known in the American Southwest as the “tarantula hawk” made him lie down and scream: “The good news is that by three minutes, it’s gone. If you really use your imagination you can get it to last five.” On the other hand, the sting of a bullet ant in Brazil (4-plus on the pain index) had him “still quivering and screaming from these peristaltic waves of pain” twelve hours later, despite the effects of ice compresses and beer.
Surely, somewhere on the internet there is a scan of the 1990 article?
posted by ennui.bz at 9:35 AM on August 4, 2011




sweat bees, whose sting is "light, ephemeral, almost fruity.

Did he swish the sweat bees around in his mouth and then spit like a wine taster?
posted by pracowity at 9:38 AM on August 4, 2011 [6 favorites]


The Dolorimeter: "Dolorimeters apply steady pressure, heat, or electrical stimulation to some area, or move a joint or other body part and determine what level of heat or pressure or electric current or amount of movement produces a sensation of pain." Want one? You can but one commercially! Hours of fun for you and your friends!

Ah, so that's what the Thumbnail Squishing Machine was! I did a pain study at a uni hospital one time. Highly recommended, I made like $150. And got my thumbnail squished. Once the pain was bad enough that I yanked my hand out of the machine, so, yeah, I'm no Bene Gesserit.
posted by showbiz_liz at 9:42 AM on August 4, 2011


Can anyone find a (more) complete ranking of insect defenses based on the Schmidt Sting Pain Index? My googles fail me.

I ask because I find it interesting that I haven't yet seen a spider bite included in any of the abbreviated lists I have already come across. Since spiders are so commonly feared by the general public, it seems odd that they would (apparently) be so underrepresented on the pain scale.
posted by I Havent Killed Anybody Since 1984 at 9:43 AM on August 4, 2011


Did he swish the sweat bees around in his mouth and then spit like a wine taster?

If he did, I finally found something to worship.
posted by Dark Messiah at 9:43 AM on August 4, 2011




I'm a little confused by people who feel the need to provide us with these scales. Anything above "ephemeral" and I am out of there. I mean, I fucking love science too, but ouchie. Also I am working outside in Massachusetts but everything is starting to look like a tarantula hawk to me right now.
posted by theredpen at 9:47 AM on August 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


I think you were fortunate that you weren't dealing with Africanized honeybees dancestoblue. They are much more aggressive than their european counterparts.
posted by vuron at 9:48 AM on August 4, 2011


I like Brosh's Better Pain Scale. Never been shot or stung by a bullet ant, but I can say that a herniated disc left me crying on the living room floor trying to bite through my leather wallet to keep from screaming, and a bout with pancreatitis did have me screaming in the ER until a very large syringe of Dilaudid reduced the pain to a manageable "I think I am dying. Please help."

I have enough health problems. Think I'll stay away from insects.
posted by elendil71 at 9:50 AM on August 4, 2011


The classic technique used by EMTs to determine pain, SOCRATES:

Site - Where is the pain?

In my stomach, radiating throughout my abdomen

Onset - When did the pain start, and was it sudden or gradual?

Soon after I drank the hemlock

Character - What is the pain like? An ache? Stabbing?

A horrible burning sensation. Also a foul aftertaste.

Radiation - Does the pain radiate anywhere?

Like I said, throughout my abdomen. It also seems to be moving up into my esophagus.

Associations - Any other signs or symptoms associated with the pain?

Weakness, dizziness, blurred vision. Also the aftertaste I mentioned before.

Time course - Does the pain follow any pattern?

Pretty much constant at this point.

Exacerbating/Relieving factors - Does anything change the pain?

Not particularly. Hold on, let me try a bit of wine...nope, not really.

Severity - How bad is the pain?

Horrible, just horrible. I totally see why they made me drink this.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 9:55 AM on August 4, 2011 [10 favorites]


"A tarantula hawk is a spider wasp which hunts tarantulas as food for its larvae. "

Jesus christ. It's like nature does Research and Development on ways to kill.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:59 AM on August 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


In Peru there were these long, skinny black beetles that had two little yellow/greenish lights at the front like glowing eyes or headlights. And the best part is when they'd fly, they had an additional bright red light on the tail.

Of course we called them Batmobeetles.
posted by straight at 10:03 AM on August 4, 2011 [4 favorites]


It's like nature does Research and Development on ways to survive and reproduce. It's not more complicated than that. Nature is not amoral; It is just pitilessly indifferent.
posted by three blind mice at 10:07 AM on August 4, 2011


Holy shit: video of the bullet ant ritual. Best part is at 2:40, where a clowder of vaguely-interested-looking kids are gathered to watch the grown man keel over and weep.
posted by Greg Nog at 10:07 AM on August 4, 2011 [6 favorites]


A wasp that eats tarantulas. Where do I even.
posted by DU at 10:09 AM on August 4, 2011


Nature is not amoral; It is just pitilessly indifferent.

Clearly you've never lived around gnats.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 10:11 AM on August 4, 2011


Hmm. I've been stung by some things: ants, bees, jellyfish, scorpions. I was hoping for a 150-item list so I could see where these things supposedly fall. FWIW, what I thought was a fire ant was far worse than the bee, so regional variations, exposure...?
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 10:17 AM on August 4, 2011


I use this for my pain reference.
posted by madmethods at 10:18 AM on August 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


Antglove is old and busted. Antsheath is the new hotness.
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 10:18 AM on August 4, 2011


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

No, I'm sorry, you have not ever been stung by a fire ant.
posted by DU at 10:18 AM on August 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


The guys over at Widely Ranging Interests did a bit on the Schmidt Index. I think even they were amazed at its lyricism.
posted by Panjandrum at 10:21 AM on August 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


Couple weeks ago I saw a video posted by a couple of backpackers showing a Tarantula Hawk buzzing around a tarantula, the guys where cracking up saying " what a stupid insect, messing with that tarantula" soon enough the tarantula crawls into a hole and the hawk goes in after it, the guys think the hawk is done for, but a few minutes later the hawk drags the tarantula out and starts stinging the hell out of it, you can hear their entire worldview crumble as they watch the spider get stung to death.

Wish I still had the link, it was posted to reddit in a thread started by a guy who was afraid to leave his apartment because a tarantula hawk was chilling on his welcome mat, he tried poking it with a stick through the mailslot but that only made it mad, it started trying to crawl under the door into his apartment.
posted by Ad hominem at 10:22 AM on August 4, 2011 [1 favorite]




Yeah, when a bunch of hardened, displaced Tibetans step back and go "ooooh" when they see you've just been stung by a fire ant, I think static discharge is maybe a poor comparator.

But see again I want to know where a mukade fits in.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 10:27 AM on August 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


Y'all aren't ready for antglove.com. (totally a self-link)
posted by neckro23 at 10:30 AM on August 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


I am just back from a Smithsonian Journeys two-day rafting trip in the Grand Canyon, in the capable, bug-scarred hands of a fabulous, burly, battered, retired professor of ecology, who promptly added to his collection of field work bites by getting chomped on the finger by an adult Arizona bark scorpion.

Wiki confirms the bark scorpion as the most venomous scorpion in the US. It delivers an electrical shock pain, then paralysis quickly spreads from the bite & lingers for up to 24-72 hours. In his case, he yelped (quietly), before the venom started numbing his arm to the elbow (but the numbness didn't immediately reduce the throbbing pain at the bite site); Ever the professor he obligingly (if numbly) passed around the delicately sinister creature for examination, captured in the bottom of his mug, and gave all of us in the group an impromptu talk - through gritted teeth -about its habitat.
posted by Jody Tresidder at 10:30 AM on August 4, 2011 [9 favorites]


Hey I dunno guys but it doesn't seem like the charcoal's working
posted by penduluum at 10:51 AM on August 4, 2011 [4 favorites]


I'm an undergrad working toward a career in entomology, and my advisor was actually one of the first people to dig up a bullet ant colony. When he was a PhD student in the 60s, he and his advisor dug up two colonies in Costa Rica. Each of them were stung ~8 times. In the article they published, it says something like "The excavation of a colony requires the death of a large animal [the any colony is considered a single animal] and some human discomfort."
posted by Buckt at 11:51 AM on August 4, 2011


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

DU: No, I'm sorry, you have not ever been stung by a fire ant.

To be fair, he's probably talking about a single fire ant. And this is a 1.2 on a scale of 4, where 4 is TWELVE HOURS OF PAIN.

He really should think of expanding the range to 1 to 10, bumping fire ants up to a 3 or so.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:57 AM on August 4, 2011


dancestoblue: Honeybees. Frickin' honeybees did this to a guy.

On the 4th page of the PBS interview, Schmidt mentions the history of breeding European bees:
In the early 1800's, the European bees weren't much nicer than today's Africanized bees. In the 1850's, a beekeeper invented the movable white box type of hive that let you open the hive, take it apart and find the queen. That gave beekeepers the ability to select for the traits they wanted. Through artificial selection, we went from nasty to nice decent bees within a half-century. So this has a precedent, and not just in bees but in every other domesticated animal.
posted by filthy light thief at 12:00 PM on August 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


Thanks. Now I feel tingling and itching and OMIGOD I FEEL LIKE INSECTS ARE ALL OVER ME AND WTF IS THAT BIG BUG AND WILL IT TRY TO MOLEST MY TENDER FLESH
posted by zombieflanders at 1:08 PM on August 4, 2011


Ha Ha! I'm reading this with a fire ant bite on my right calf. The red swollen part is about the size of a grapefruit with an open blister that weeps every time I stand up.

I have a pretty intimate relationship with the fire ants in my garden, getting around 20 bites or so a year. The worst experience however was when I was somewhere else, forking up mulch into my truck. Several fire ants got into my pants and I couldn't disrobe in public. I was slapping my legs like crazy trying to kill them while I sped home. Not fun, but the bites themselves are not so bad, something like acidic pin pricks-- you definitely know you are getting stung but the pain is short-lived. The ants bite you to get a grip and then use their stinger over and over in a circle. The first day it doesn't look or feel much worse than a mosquito bite, it is the second day when things get going: large, painful swelling with a blister that usually turns black.

That pales in comparison to the paper wasp. I got stung in the face a couple of months ago and man, that just keeps hurting. Like someone is hammering a nail into you, over and over for 10 minutes or more, depending on how long it takes you to get something (cut onion, baking soda) on the site.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 1:09 PM on August 4, 2011


Here is the video I mentioned.
posted by Ad hominem at 1:11 PM on August 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


To be fair, he's probably talking about a single fire ant.

I think you're probably right. And I also think that, as an entomologist, he should know that there's pretty much no such thing as getting stung by "a single fire ant."
posted by mudpuppie at 1:27 PM on August 4, 2011


zombieflanders: Thanks. Now I feel tingling and itching OMIGOD I FEEL LIKE INSECTS ARE ALL OVER ME ...

Dude, you're a zombie. It comes with being a reanimated corpse.
posted by filthy light thief at 2:49 PM on August 4, 2011


This thread was the first I head of tarantula hawks.

Here's the best video I found of the wasp attacking a tarantula -- part 1, 2, 3.

Includes quite diverse reactions and commentary by some hiking ladies.
posted by Anything at 3:24 PM on August 4, 2011


head -> heard
posted by Anything at 3:38 PM on August 4, 2011


A couple of years ago I had the opportunity to go over an excel spreadsheet in which a seismic data acquisition guy had collected every single field fatality recorded by the industry, something like fifty years of data. There was a category for animal-caused deaths. There were approximately 20 of these. A grizzly bear. A rattlesnake or two. &c.

More than half of the twenty were guys getting attacked by a bee swarm.

(By far the most dangerous thing a doodlebugger does on the job is drive a car or a truck.)
posted by bukvich at 4:34 PM on August 4, 2011


Interesting that paper wasps merit a 3 on the scale. I've had a few of those puppies in my time, and whilst indeed they do sting like buggery, it pales into comparison with the pains of my colitis has inflicted on me at times. I mean, it was completely bearable, though very irritating - not least of which because the little bastards will sting you over and over again, right in the middle of your goddamned back.

I dunno, I think chronic pain beats acute every time. When it's short, you can close your eyes and think of England, when it's four in the morning, and it's been several hours, it eats away at your mind like carbolic acid.

This all said, research has shown that people's pain perceptions radically differ compared with others, and even with themselves at different times. What feels like a pinprick for some can at other times feel like an amputation.

I tell you this, though; chronic pain taught me a lot about myself and my understanding of the world that I would never have had otherwise. Really helps put things in perspective, a shitload of pain. You work out what's important; cause when you're in a lot of pain, you only do the important stuff. Great antidote to quotidian work stress.
posted by smoke at 6:09 PM on August 4, 2011


sweat bees. when I first read that I saw "sweet bees" and thought about getting stung only yesterday. that was not a sweet bee. and about as ephemeral as shutting your finger in a car door.

my toe looks like someone stitched a finger onto my foot at a weird angle. or a beenie weenie.
because its all puffy where the bee got me. just yesterday, did I mention?

I was filling up at a gas station, chattin with a friend, lets call him charlie, about something.
and I got a tickle on my toe where my flip flop ties in. so I scratched it
with my other toe not unlike you'd use a finger to wipe off another and OH MY GOD WHATTHEFUCKISTHATPAIN I stepped on a nail?
a fireant? glass? looked down and nothing. but pain. then I see the little pebble
between my toes. a little furry pebble.
a bee.
well what.the.hell.
I grabbed it out and threw it down but the pain persisted.
"you have to pull the stinger out" charlie suggested while I hopped around on one foot with invisible flames emanating from the other one.
there was, indeed, a little splinter still in my toe and I pulled it out, but the pain kept on giving.

I'd never been stung by a bee. not once in all my 35 years. so I was
excited. no, that's not right. I was in pain. stopped pumping gas. almost
didn't put the handle back on the pump. and got in the car in a fit of adrenaline fueled anger. cussing all the way. hitting the door handle and cussing. turning on the car and cussing. charlie looking at some blonde that looked a little bitchy and I'm cussin. g.
popped in in drive and I'm asking 'why does it still hurt?' as i pull into traffic.

why did I insist on driving? am I allergic to bees? you'll know in about
three minutes, charlie again helpfully informs me, because your foot will swell up, then your throat from anaphylactic shock. and then we'll have to call 911. my toe starts sort of pulsing.
great. why am I driving again? switching lanes and heading for the pool. I need ice. we drive across the bridge. past where I work and I think about the ice machine on the third floor. maybe I could pull over and go in. why am I driving? I cuss and hit the console between the seats. charlie's telling me we don't need to drive, we can pull over. and I lift my foot off the gas as we coast down the road to look at the wound. pull it up to look at it while we're moving. with traffic oncoming. this upsets charlie and he insists that I drive regularly. it feels like someone is sawing my toe off. slowly. then they stop. then they start sawing again.

then he's explaining to me helpfully about how bee stings are a medical treatment for MS. or parkinsons or something. I'm cross as I drive. I think I'm talking at a very loud voice. but we continue on to the pool. pressing the break or the accelerator hurts. pressing my luck, really. I think several times that I should not be driving.
adrenaline is a real bitch.

luckily, we got to the pool without (further) incident. and the sawing slows down to just a sharp pointy feel. I'm very relieved. we go up to the gate and I flash my ID to get in. can't wait to stick my foot in the cold spring water.
I jumped in and started to swim.
ahhhhh.
the relief.
and luckily, no shock.
though chas then made some jokes about having the lifeguard come suck the poison out.
total time of really intense pain - about 7 minutes. a burn from the stove hurts less.

and so I survived to tell the tale.
that, friends, was no sweet bee.

ps. the next day it's really, really itchy.
posted by ilovemytoaster at 6:57 PM on August 4, 2011


" I couldn't disrobe in public."

I could. I just said, "excuse me ladies!" and took my pants right off. But it was too late to avoid getting badly stung by whatever was in there. I'm a guy though, so my definition of "public" might be less important than yours.

Also, DO NOT EVER PEE ON A WASP.
posted by sneebler at 7:00 PM on August 4, 2011


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