Justin Schmidt, 'King of Sting,' Was Like a Sommelier of Insect Sting Pain
Shackleton suffered tremendous adversity and pain and overcame the fear of starvation, freezing, and death. But did he ever willingly subject himself to the pain of a tarantula hawk sting? No. No he did not. But Justin Schmidt did. Schmidt, an entomologist, traveled the Southwest deserts and the world's farthest flung jungles searching out stinging insects. If he was stung, it was a thrill. It was for science.
You've been stung by the common paper wasp, yes? The brown and orange buggers that buzz around in summer? How would you describe it, other than: ouch?
Schmidt was a master of sting sensation description. A poet of pain. “Burning, throbbing, and lonely. A single drop of superheated frying oil landed on your arm” is how he described a paper wasp sting. Yeah, that’s about right. Schmidt devoted his entire career to studying the Hymenoptera order of insects—stinging bugs—and their venomous defense mechanisms. His devotion was such that he was stung by more than 80 different species of ant, wasp, and bee, many hundreds of stings in total as traveled the world seeking the sting-bearing critters. Occasionally he suffered the stings on purpose, but only rarely, especially for the most painful stings. Those usually happened by accident during specimen collection or particularly close observation. “All those stings were readily delivered without my help,” Schmidt once told me.
His quest to document the stings of Hymenoptera placed him in situations that would horrify those with even mild entomophobia.
Schmidt suffered enough slings and arrows of Hymenoptera to categorize their particular flavors in what he called the Schmidt Pain Index, an encyclopedia of misery. Each sting gets a remarkably florid description and a numerical rating from one (mud dauber wasp: “Sharp with a flare of heat. Jalapeño cheese when you were expecting Havarti”) to four (bullet ant: “Like walking over flaming charcoal with a three-inch nail embedded in your heel”).
Schmidt began his pain journal in 1973. He launched his academic career as a chemist, but lab work was tedious and he fondly remembered his childhood of chasing yellow jackets around his childhood home in Pennsylvania, so he made the switch to entomology. He enrolled as a grad student at the University of Georgia, started studying bugs, and developed his idea for the pain index after being stung by harvester ants (level 3: “Somebody is using a power drill to excavate your ingrown toenail”) while trying to dig one of their colonies out of the ground. The sensation, so much more intense than pain from the stings of yellow jackets he experienced as a child (level 2: “Imagine WC Fields extinguishing a cigar on your tongue”), shocked Schmidt, and he was convinced the world needed a scale for interpreting the pain of a stinging insect.
His quest to document the stings of Hymenoptera placed him in situations that would horrify those with even mild entomophobia. Once, in the mountains of Costa Rica, Schmidt donned a beekeeper’s veil and dangled from a tree branch perched over a cliff while trying to nab a nest of black wasps. They reacted by “spraying streams of venom through the mesh of the veil directly at my eyes.” At other times, curious about the defense mechanisms of non-stinging members of bee, wasp, and ant species, Schmidt would simply pop them in his mouth and eat them to see if they produce a foul taste.
The kings of Schmidt’s pain index are the 4s—the tarantula hawk and bullet ant are the most well known. He was of course stung by both (“Lie down and scream,” was his preferred treatment for a tarantula hawk sting) and as a result had little fear of the most painful stings. The intense pain of stings, Schmidt argued, serves not only to drive away a potential predator, but to spark a fearful memory in those that have been stung so that the next time they encounter, say, a tarantula hawk, they’ll steer well clear. “The long-lasting excruciating pain sends a message that the insect should be recognized, remembered, and, thereby, avoided at all costs,” he wrote.
Schmidt had a kind of late career fame sparked by his wonderful book, The Sting of the Wild, which is a must read for anyone who spends time outside around buzzing venom bombs. He made the NPR interview circuit and was featured on late night talk shows. But he wasn't a novelty. Schmidt was a dedicated scientist who was a member of the University of Arizona's faculty. He had a deep, abiding love of nature, especially the critters most of us fear and avoid.
“I know some people think me crazy, but I am no masochist, and only occasionally am stung on purpose,” he told The Guardian in 2018. “When it does happen, I initially react as anyone else would — cursing, more than I should admit. Then I get out my notebook and stopwatch, sit down and make notes.”
Schmidt died in February, 2023, at the age of 75.
Words by Justin Housman