Schmidt sting pain index
The Schmidt sting pain index is a pain scale rating the relative pain caused by different hymenopteran stings. It is mainly the work of Justin O. Schmidt (born 1947), an entomologist at the Carl Hayden Bee Research Center in Arizona. Schmidt has published a number of papers on the subject, and claims to have been stung by the majority of stinging Hymenoptera.
His original paper in 1983 was a way to systematize and compare the hemolytic properties of insect venoms. The index contained in the paper started from 0 for stings that are completely ineffective against humans, progressed through 2, a familiar pain such as a common bee or wasp sting and finished at 4 for the most painful stings. Synoeca septentrionalis, along with other wasps in the genus Synoeca, bullet ants and tarantula hawks were the only species to attain this ranking. In the conclusion, some descriptions of the most painful examples were given, e.g.: "Paraponera clavata stings induced immediate, excruciating pain and numbness to pencil-point pressure, as well as trembling in the form of a totally uncontrollable urge to shake the affected part."
Subsequently, Schmidt has refined his scale, culminating in a paper published in 1990, which classifies the stings of 78 species and 41 genera of Hymenoptera. Schmidt described some of the experiences in vivid detail.
An entry in The Straight Dope reported that "implausibly exact numbers" which do not appear in any of Schmidt’s published scientific papers were "wheedled out of him" by Outside magazine for an article it published in 1996.
Schmidt's pain scale of Hymenopteran stings is organized into levels, ranging between 1 and 4, with 4 being the most painful. However, insect stings that feel very different can be put into the same level. Thus, Schmidt always includes a brief description of his experience being stung by each type of insect. On that note, these stings are based on Schmidt's subjective perspective, and insect stings can vary person to person, so the scale is not universal.
Pain Level 1
Some of the insect stings Schmidt considers to be at a pain level of 1 include the Southern fire ant, the elongate twig ant, the Western paper wasp, the white-faced bee, and most small bees. The duration of the pain of insect stings categorized into Pain Level 1 generally is five minutes or less.
Since many small bees are categorized into a pain level of 1, most toxic polypeptides in bee venom are melittin, apamin, and MCD peptide. Melittin is the main toxin of bee venom, and it damages red blood cells and white blood cells. Apamin is a neurotoxin that augments polysynaptic reflexes. MCD peptide destroys mast cells.
Feeling only slight pain, Schmidt has described the sting of the white-faced bee, categorized into Pain Level 1, as "almost pleasant, a lover just bit your earlobe a little too hard." Also rated into Pain Level 1, Schmidt has described the sting of the sweat bee as "light, ephemeral, almost fruity. A tiny spark has singed a single hair on your arm."
Pain Level 2
Schmidt sets the sting of the Western honey bee at a pain level of 2 to be the anchoring value, basing his categorization of all other stings on it. He has categorized a variety of wasps, bees, and ants into Pain Level 2, including the yellowjacket, the Asiatic honey bee, the trap-jaw ant, and the bald-faced hornet. The duration of the stings in this level is generally between five and ten minutes long. Schmidt categorized the majority of Hymenopteran stings as having a pain level of 2.
The sting of a termite-raiding ant, categorized as a pain level of 2, has a similar feeling as "the debilitating pain of a migraine contained in the tip of your finger," according to Schmidt. On the contrary, the yellowjacket's sting was described as being "hot and smoky, almost irreverent. Imagine W. C. Fields extinguishing a cigar on your tongue." Though the sting was a different feeling, the yellowjacket was also rated at a pain level of 2.
Pain Level 3
Most insects that are characterized as having a pain level of 3 are wasps, including the red paper wasp, the metricus paper wasp, and the velvet ant (which is actually a wasp, not an ant). The duration of the sting pain can range anywhere from one minute (such as the sting of the red paper wasp) to half an hour (such as the sting of the velvet ant). Wasp venom uniquely contains wasp kinin that exhibit kinin-like activity. One of the kinins found in wasp kinin, polistes kinin 3, is found to lead to similar effects on smooth musculature and circulation as bradykinin.
Some ants are also rated at a Pain Level 3, including the giant bull ant and the Maricopa harvester ant. Schmidt considered the sting of the Maricopa harvester ant as having a pain level of 3, describing it as such: "After eight unrelenting hours of drilling into that ingrown toenail, you find the drill wedged into the toe."
Pain Level 4
Pain Level 4 is the highest level in the Schmidt sting pain index. Schmidt gave the sting of the tarantula hawk a rating of a 4, which he described as "blinding, fierce [and] shockingly electric." The composition of the tarantula hawk venom is unknown, though the duration of pain from the sting is short-lived, lasting only approximately 5 minutes.
Schmidt rated the sting of the bullet ant as a 4-plus. Schmidt has described the sting as "pure, intense, brilliant pain...like walking over flaming charcoal with a three-inch nail embedded in your heel." The bullet ant's venom primarily contains poneratoxin, a paralyzing neurotoxic peptide.
Evolution from painful to toxic stings
The Schmidt sting pain index arose from the pursuit of a larger hypothesis: that the evolution of sociality in Hymenoptera was dependent on the evolution of venom that was both painful and toxic. Pain is an advertisement of damage in the body, but molecules that produce pain and those that are toxic, and actively cause damage, are not the same. Although the painful signal acts as a deterrent, intelligent predators will learn the dishonesty of this signal with repeated exposure – that there is no real damage being done. For the early Hymenoptera that were primarily solitary, the pain alone would allow them the chance to escape. Furthermore, solitary insects do not provide a high energy reward for predators, and therefore predators do not expend significant effort to hunt them. However, with the evolution of sociality where many Hymenoptera cluster together in colonies, nests become a nutritionally rich and therefore worthwhile target. If there were no defenses, predators would devour the defenseless society, leaving few surviving individuals and eliminating social reproduction. Sociality would therefore not be beneficial. In order for sociality to evolve, Hymenoptera needed a defense beyond a painful sting to protect their whole colony. Their sting was an advertisement of damage, and toxicity evolved as its truth. With a toxic sting, and thus the ability to protect against predators, Hymenoptera were able to progress towards sociality and its associated evolutionary benefits of the shared raising of youth, individual task specialization, inter-colony communication, and food storage.
To approach studying this evolutionary connection between toxicity and sociality, Schmidt recognized there needed to be a quantitative measure with which to score the painfulness of stings. Assays for toxicity are already well characterized and can be quantified, but without the Schmidt sting pain index, there would be no way to relate the amount of sociality to the level of pain, and therefore this hypothesis could not have been studied.
Use in media
The Schmidt sting pain index was used in 2015 as the basis for YouTube personality Coyote Peterson to conduct a series of self-induced insect stings on his Brave Wilderness channel. In this modern re-evaluation of the Schmidt index, he discovered findings similar to that of the Starr sting pain scale, declaring the Japanese giant hornet should be placed at the top of the list. Peterson has since been bitten by Scolopendra heros, commonly known as the giant desert centipede, and declared the bite to be worse than anything he has ever experienced from an insect, and more painful than the sting of the bullet ant. He was forced to use a venom extractor and seek medical attention. In the fall of 2018, Peterson took what he said will be his final sting, from Polistes carnifex, also known as the Executioner wasp. He said that the pain lasted for approximately 36 hours, with residual physical effects lasting almost a week; Peterson went on to claim the pain from the Executioner Wasp was more intense than that of either Paraponera clavata or the Japanese giant hornet. Additionally, the venom appeared to have necrotic properties, as Peterson said the venom destroyed a small area of tissue around the sting site in his left forearm and left Peterson with a permanent scar, something no other insect he has voluntarily taken a sting from has done.
The Schmidt index is cited in the 2015 film Ant-Man when the plan to break into Pym Technologies includes the use of bullet ants to distract personnel working there.
Schmidt features in the documentaries 72 Dangerous Animals Latin America (2017) and 72 Dangerous Animals Asia (2018), where he talks about his pain index.
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- Cecil Adams (May 11, 2012) Did the creator of the Schmidt Sting Pain Index volunteer to get stung by everything on earth?, The Straight Dope
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