T o be stung by a wasp, an ant or a bee raises—beyond the “Ow!”—immediate questions. How can a creature so tiny inflict such remarkable pain? And why, when all you have done is to make a jam sandwich or dare to eat a peach, does it launch such a vicious and unprovoked attack?
Justin Schmidt wondered too, and spent his life trying to find out. Hence his nickname, “The King of Sting”. To further human knowledge he thrust his bare arms into hives of honey bees, dug up in Brazil a boiling swarm of bullet ants (which reduced him to a shaking wreck, held together by ice and beer), teetered in trees to cut down hornets’ nests, and filled his home-cum-lab west of Tucson with tanks of irritated wasps. He harvested the venom of hundreds of ants to compare it with the venom of other ants, at 200 ants for one-thousandth of a teaspoon. Over 35 years 150 different species of insect jabbed him but, to his regret, his pain threshold never rose. If they would not voluntarily perform (most were eager) he gritted his teeth, placed them on his arm and enticed them, in the name of science. Then, after cursing just a little, he took out his notebook and stopwatch and wrote it up.
Most famously, in 1983, he compiled the Schmidt Index, ranking the stings of 78 insects from one to four according to their pain. Most he had endured himself—felt he had to endure, because of his list—though colleagues chipped in. The honey bee was his anchoring value, since most people knew what a bee sting felt like, and was rated a two. He also provided a line or so, trembling on the edge of poetry, to describe each pain precisely. Thus the sweat bee sting (1), was “light and ephemeral, almost fruity. A tiny spark has singed a single hair on your arm.” The honey wasp’s (2) was “Spicy, blistering. A cotton swab dipped in habanero sauce has been pushed up your nose.” The unstable paper wasp’s (2) was “like a dinner guest who stays much too long.” As for the red-headed paper wasp’s (3), this was “irrationally intense...the closest you will come to seeing the blue of a flame from within the fire.”