Oh, Sting, Where is Thy Death?

Gary Meek, Georgia Tech Photo

The following first appeared in The New York Times, August 10, 2009.

Not long ago, I got stung by a yellow jacket, and after the usual ow-plus-obscenities moment, I found myself thinking about pain, happiness, and Justin O. Schmidt. He’s an Arizona entomologist and co-author of the standard text in the insect sting field, “Insect Defenses: Adaptive Mechanisms and Strategies of Prey and Predators.” But he’s more widely celebrated as the creator of the “Justin O. Schmidt Sting Pain Index,” a connoisseur’s guide to just how bad the ouch is, on a scale of one (“a tiny spark”) to four (“absolutely debilitating”).

Among connoisseurs of insect stings, it’s the equivalent of Robert Parker’s wine ratings. Schmidt has been stung by about 150 different species on six continents and seems to have opinions about all of them. In faux-Parker mode, he once described a bald-faced hornet sting as “Rich, hearty, slightly crunchy. Similar to getting your hand mashed in a revolving door.” Other researchers tend to regard his work with fascination. But hardly anyone tries to replicate his results.

You are perhaps thinking that this does not sound like it has much to do with happiness, especially not on a hot summer day with the insect world chattering and buzzing just outside the screen door. But Schmidt struck me as a happy guy when I first looked him up a few years ago at the home in Tucson he shares with a wife, two kids, and a large collection of venomous arthropods. I was researching my book Swimming With Piranhas at Feeding Time, and he seemed like a good fit with my subtitle about “doing dumb stuff with animals.” We sat down to talk at the kitchen table. The only condiment was a tube of Itch-X.

Maybe I’d been reading too much positive psychology, but it struck me that you could make Schmidt’s work a case study — O.K., a somewhat perverse case study — in happiness. It was, for instance, all about “flow.” That’s the term happiness researchers use for the sense of well-being that comes from getting so caught up in what you’re doing, so focused and energized by it, that time passes by unnoticed. For athletes, flow is about being “in the zone.” For stock traders it’s about being “in the pipe” (but not “down the tubes”). And for Justin Schmidt, clearly, it was about being knee-deep in a nest of stinging insects.

He never gets stung on purpose, he said. Too artificial; the insect might not deliver a normal dose of venom. But his research on bees, wasps, and ants often requires him to hunt down and collect obscure species, so he has plenty of opportunity for instructive mistakes. “What happens is that you’ve been looking for a species maybe for years,” he told me. “You finally find a nest and by God you’re going to get every one of them. You get your buckets and your aspirators and you start digging away.” In the excitement, a few stings are almost inevitable.

Positive psychology types like to say that savoring the moment is a “crucial happiness skill,” and that’s what Schmidt does next: “So I pay a little attention to the type of pain it is, how long it lasts, how intense it gets.” A harvester ant, for instance, “felt like somebody was putting a knife in and twisting it.” A wasp known in the American Southwest as the “tarantula hawk” made him lie down and scream: “The good news is that by three minutes, it’s gone. If you really use your imagination you can get it to last five.” On the other hand, the sting of a bullet ant in Brazil (4-plus on the pain index) had him “still quivering and screaming from these peristaltic waves of pain” twelve hours later, despite the effects of ice compresses and beer.

When you get past the savoring, happiness researchers recommend, finally, “surrendering the self-centered perspective” and “recognizing the other,” and Schmidt was surely doing some of that, too. The pain index came into being, he said, because he wanted to understand the two ways stinging can be of defensive value to an insect. “One is that it can actually do serious damage, to kill the target or make it impaired. The other is the whammy, the pain.” He could quantify the amount of venom injected and its toxicity, but he had no way to measure pain other than through direct experience. So the pain index gave him a tool for interpreting an insect’s overall defensive strategy.

In fact, most insect stings do no damage at all, except to the two percent of people who suffer an allergic reaction. They just scare the wits out of us. And this is why they fascinate Schmidt: We typically outweigh any insect tormentor by a million times or more. We can outthink it. “And yet it wins,” said Schmidt, “and the evidence that it has won is that people flap their arms, run around screaming, and do all kinds of carrying on.” It wins “by making us hurt far more than any animal that size ought to be able to do. It deceives us into thinking serious damage is being done.” And that’s generally enough to deliver the insect’s message, which is: Stay away from me and my nest.

Not everybody gets it, of course. Bears figure out that bees are just bluffing and they learn to put up with the sting pain as a cost of getting honey from the hive. And there’s probably a life lesson in that: You will do better once you learn to distinguish between the things that can kill you and the ones that merely sting. But I think Schmidt was working around to the larger point, dear to the entomological heart, that stinging insects are in fact good. Most of the 60,000 stinging insect species don’t waste their venom on people; they use it primarily to attack tomato hornworms, cabbage loopers, and the like. And if they were not out there busily killing agricultural pests, we would starve. So the zen bottom line here is, next time you get stung, try thinking of it not as a curse, but as one of the small blessings of summer.

Schmidt and I wandered out into his yard just in time to see a tarantula hawk whip through at eye level. It had orange wings and metallic blue flanks, and looked about as menacing as a Chinook helicopter. “I can catch it if you want to get stung,” Schmidt offered. By now, the thought of three minutes of totally unbearable pain was sounding somewhere between a religious experience and drinking a wine with a 99 point Parker rating. But before I could say, “Sure, it’s Friday, let’s go for a four,” the wasp was out of reach.

Really, though, I was happy enough just knowing it was there.

Richard Conniff’s new book, Swimming With Piranhas at Feeding Time: My Life Doing Dumb Stuff With Animals, is just out from W.W. Norton.