The King of Sting

Tim Vanderpool, Jacob Chinn photo

UA entomologist Justin Schmidt created the Schmidt Sting Pain Index after years of trying to get stung by nearly every fearsome insect on the planet. He details the results in his book “The Sting of the Wild.”

He doesn’t recommend following in his footsteps, but if you find yourself  up close and personal with, say, a ferocious Polybia wasp, you’ll at least know what’s in store. “Like a trick gone wrong,” reads the entry. “Your posterior is a target for a BB gun. Bull’s-eye, over and over.”

Consider the yellow jacket wasp. According to its entry, it has a “stinger that’s a finer needle than any clinical doctor uses.” Or the velvet ant, “with a stinger that’s very long and very flexible. It has the advantage of being directionally controlled. So if you pick up a velvet ant, you will be stung.” 

None of this is abstract speculation. Schmidt has been stung nearly 1,000 times — all to better understand stinging insects and to help readers appreciate the fascinating arsenal they have to defend themselves. 

“I wanted to share the beauty of nature,” he says. “Science can be fun, biology can be fun, and, for heaven’s sake, even stinging insects can be fun.” 

The tarantula hawk scores high on the pain index — with good reason. This daunting wasp can paralyze a tarantula with a single sting; the unlucky spider then becomes a 24-hour diner for wasp larvae. 

There is a goal behind what some might view as Schmidt’s masochistic predilections: He aims to highlight the primordial relationship between human beings and stinging insects. “It’s really a human story as much as it is an insect story,” he says. “We don’t have same reaction to boll weevils or grasshoppers — we don’t have these deep relationships with them based on fear and apprehension.”

He hopes to change those relationships by sparking our innate curiosity. “Nature,” he says, “is more interesting than any fiction that society will come up with.”