Biologist Justin Schmidt is somewhat of an expert about being bitten or stung by bugs. Okay, he’s more than just an expert, he’s probably one of the world’s foremost sting scientists. For example, the honeybee: “They’re about as toxic as a rattlesnake,” said Justin. “I kind of make the anaology that if you took a rattlesnake, broke it into five hundred pieces, and then added wings, you’ve got honeybees.”
Justin has devoted his life and his skin to studying insect bites, stings, and venoms in his lab at Tuscon, Arizona.
When asked how many times he has been stung, Schmidt replied, “It’s probably somewhere between a thousand and two thousand times.”
He’s been stung so many times, he figured that he can put all that pain to use. So he came up with what he calls in his book the “Schmidt Scale of Pain.” Stings from eighty four different insects are rated on a scale from one to four, and accompanied by some imaginative descriptions, like hot pain, itchy pain, and burning or shocking pain.
“They’re quite different, like the tarantula hawk is an electrifying one,” Schmidt said. “Feels like you have electric power line break off and land on you.”
Scmidt describes the sweet bee as “Light, ephemeral, almost fruity.”
“It’s just a little, tiny thing,” Schmidt said. “It’s very light. It’s almost like a teasing pain. It’s just, ‘Hey, open your arm up. Let me out. I don’t mean any harm.'”
Schmidt isn’t just studying what the sting feels like for fun, though, he’s also studying why the insects sting in the first place. “Insects are tiny, tiny little things, and things that want to eat them are big,” he said. “So you got this basic problem: How do you defend a little guy, a really little guy, against a really big guy? And the sting turns out to be the solution.”
“And if they stung us, they’d say, ‘Oh, this is the trouble,’ then this stinger is left in your skin. And what it does is it has a little flag on it. And this flag is like a sponge, and it’s got chemicals in it.”
Schmidt said, “One of the projects I’m working on right now is trying to alleviate chronic pain in human beings. You have cancer or many other diseases that have chronic pain. And the solutions we have are very blunt.”
So, Schmidt is using the powerful but harmless venom of the fearsome-looking tarantula hawk to better understand how pain works in the body, and ideally help us find ways to treat it more effectively.