We can learn a lot from painful experiences. For instance, as a child, I was warned multiple times about running around barefoot in our backyard. It wasn’t until I stepped on a bee with my bare foot, however, that I finally took that advice to heart. That’s when I finally started throwing on shoes before running outside to play.
For Justin Schmidt, it was a sting of a different kind that catapulted him into extensive research on a very specific topic—the pain of the getting stung by different insects.
“I had just gotten my Master’s degree in chemistry,” explains Schmidt. “I was looking at the chemistry of some ants down in Georgia and I got stung ... This thing really hurt!”
Having been stung as a child several times, Schmidt realized this wasn’t like any other sting he had experienced. This was different, and he wanted to know why. So he started to take a look at the chemistry of the venom of this ant and other stinging insects.
Amidst his studies, he was getting stung and casually taking note of the pain. It wasn’t until a few years later, he says, that he started to look for a correlation between the chemistry of the venom and the pain level of the sting.
In order to determine this, Schmidt had to create a pain scale for stings. In order to do that, he had to intentionally get stung by scores of insects.
Although his research found no link between chemistry and pain, it did give us something fascinating. His research gave us an amazing inventory of stinging insects from all over the world and vivid descriptions of just how bad each of those stings hurt.
The Science of Getting Stung
Let’s back up and quickly review the science of getting stung. Insects, like bees, wasps, and hornets, sting as an act of defense. It makes sense that something so small would need an effective way to defend themselves from larger predators.
Some insects, most famously honey bees, have barbed stingers. These stingers get lodged in the flesh of the person being stung. When a honey bee stings, it injects a venom called apitoxin into the skin and release pheromones that send out an alarm to the nearby hive that a predator is near, according to Science Daily. The barbed stinger pulls out a venom sac, mortally wounding the bee while potentially saving its comrades.
Other stinging insects, like wasps, ants, and other bees, can sting multiple times because the stinger doesn’t lodge itself in the skin of the lucky recipient of the sting.
They really hurt. They’re kind of like digging under your skin and ripping out the tendons, muscles, and nerves.
All stings inject venom into the recipient of the sting, but the venom is different from insect to insect. The venom of some insects is more damaging than others, according to Schmidt, and some venom is more painful than others.
The Least and Most Painful Stings in the World
Schmidt wanted to know if the chemistry of insect venom somehow reflected the relative painfulness of their stings. Although he discovered that there wasn’t a common chemical thread in the venom of the most excruciating stings, he did create the Pain Scale for Stinging Insects, a living document often referred to as the Schmidt Sting Pain Index. As of the publication of his latest book, The Sting of the Wild, he's ranked the stings of 83 species from 1 to 4—1 being the least painful and 4 being the most.
The least painful sting is the sweat bee. Schmidt rates the sting of a sweat bee as a 1, obviously, on his pain scale. In fact, he has been quoted as describing their sting as “light and ephemeral, almost fruity.”
“This little, gray bee lands in the crook of your elbow, called a sweat bee,” he says. “You pinch the poor little bee, and it doesn’t like that, so it kind of stings you. It’s kind of a sparse [pain].”
A fire ant, an insect commonly found in the southern United States, also gets ranked as a 1 on the pain scale.
Moving on to the 2 on his pain scale, Schmidt gives the example of a honey bee. This pain he compares to a burning sensation, like if you let a match burn down to your fingertip while lighting the candles on a birthday cake. The sting of a yellow jacket also gets ranked as a 2 on Schmidt’s scale.
The harvester ant, the sting that inspired this whole experiment, gets ranked as a 3.
“They really hurt,” says Schmidt. “They’re kind of like digging under your skin and ripping out the tendons, muscles, and nerves. It’s excruciating pain, and it goes on for four hours.”
Only the most painful of stings get ranked as a 4 on Schmidt’s pain scale, like the tarantula hawk's infamous sting. The tarantula hawk is native to Schmidt’s home state of Arizona. It’s a giant wasp that hunts tarantulas, paralyzing them with venom and then dragging them back to their nest. The tarantula hawk then lays an egg on the paralyzed tarantula, which will eventually hatch into a larvae that will then consume the still-living tarantula as its first meal.
The pain of its sting is comparable to being struck by lightning, he says, although the pain is localized to the spot where you are stung. Thankfully, this pain only lasts for two to three minutes.
The Least and Most Damaging Stings in the World
Interestingly, the pain of the sting isn’t indicative of the damage that sting does to the victim. As he was creating his pain scale, it became very clear to Schmidt that ranking on the scale couldn’t predict the danger of the sting. Each insect had to be considered on a case-by-case basis.
“This is true of the tarantula hawk ... it doesn’t want to be dangerous,” explains Schmidt. “It paralyzes the tarantula to be food for its young. If it killed it outright, it would rot and the young wouldn’t be able to eat it and they would starve to death.”
In comparison, a red harvester ant ranks as a 3 on the pain scale, but it's considered to have one of the most toxic venoms in the world. This makes sense, according to Schmidt, when you consider the way harvester ants live.
“We can correlate their behavior with lifestyle; they have huge colonies that hold 10 to 20,000 ants,” he says. “They have predators, but they can’t fly away and they can’t run away ... so they have to stand and defend themselves.”
Somewhere on a different scale entirely lies the belief that bee venom may have health benefits. This alternative medicine treatment is supposedly used to treat individuals dealing with painful, chronic conditions like arthritis or multiple sclerosis.
It's hard to say just how effective bee venom therapy is as a treatment for chronic conditions, particularly due to sparse research. One study published in the journal Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine did find bee venom therapy to have positive outcomes for arthritis treatment, but the authors of this study admitted that more research needed to be done to further prove this to be true. Another study in Neurology found bee venom therapy to have zero positive effects on multiple sclerosis, and MS resource Neurology and Care warns of "rare, but very serious side effects."
There isn’t a lot of interest in funding the study of alternative or natural treatment options, according to Schmidt. He believes that bee venom therapy is interesting and is intrigued by the amount of anecdotal evidence that exists. Like other scientists, however, he wants hard proof. He wants to see more research done on the topic of bee venom therapy before any statements about its so-called effectiveness can be made.
Location, Location, Location
Inspired by the Schmidt's pain index, researcher Michael L. Smith from Cornell University wanted to know what other factors influenced pain. More specifically, he was curious if the pain experienced would change based on the location of the sting.
In the name of science, Smith decided to map the painfulness of being stung by a honey bee on different parts of his body. Choosing 25 different locations on his body, Smith self-administered a honey bee sting five times a day and rated them on a 1 to 10 pain scale. After covering each of the 25 areas of the body, he repeated the entire experiment two more times.
As he suspected, the painfulness of the sting was dependent on the location. He determined the three most painful places to get stung to be the nostril, the upper lip, and the genitals. In comparison, the least painful places to get stung by a honey bee were the skull, the tip of the middle toe, and the upper arm.
Here’s what you should do if you get stung.
How you deal with an sting is largely dependent on what has stung you and whether or not you are sensitive or allergic to that insect’s venom. If you aren’t certain you have an allergy, the best thing to do is pay attention. Watch for symptoms that might indicate that you are having an allergic reaction.
“Most people do get some redness and swelling after being bit by an insect,” explains Sarena Sawlani, MD, Medical Director of Chicago Allergy and Asthma. “However, other people can have much more serious reactions, including possibly life-threatening reactions.”
The symptoms to watch for include itching, a rash, and swelling of the throat or tongue. If you are having trouble breathing, feel dizzy, nauseous, or have diarrhea, these are also likely signs you are having an allergic reaction, according to Sawlani. If these symptoms pop up, head to an emergency room. Once you have been treated for this reaction, you need to follow up with a board certified allergist to determine if you have an allergy and figure out how you should proceed to protect your health.