Have you ever been stung by a bee? Want to know how much you have suffered on a scale of one to four? Then take a look at the Schmidt Sting Pain Index which rates the relative pain caused by the sting of hymenoptera. That would be sawflies, wasps, bees and ants to most of us.
Schmidt describes the sting of the Sweat Bee as “Light, ephemeral, almost fruity. A tiny spark has singed a single hair on your arm.” Sweat bees are a large family of bees and they are hugely attracted to humans. Specifically, it is the salt in our sweat that they like.
They are very common all over the world except in South East Asia and Australia where there are few branches of the family tree known as Halicitidae. As they have a desire to lap up our sweat for its salt content that means that contact with humans is common and the squeeze of fingers of splat of palms are as common as the insect. It’s a shame that this makes the bee sting us, as left alone it will take the salt and buzz off. Fortunately, on the Schmidt Sting Pain Index (which we will acronymise and call the SSPI from here on in) it is nothing much to worry about. In fact on the scale of one to four it comes in at a measly one – no decimal point.
Coming in at 1.2 on the scale is the Fire Ant (species in the genus Solenopsis). Way off the four yet if you are stung by one of these it will sting and swell up in to a bump. Schmidt describes it as “Sharp, sudden, mildly alarming. Like walking across a shag carpet & reaching for the light switch.”
If you don’t leave it alone the bump can become infected as it forms a milky white pustule which reacts badly to scratching. If they do get infected then you will probably be scarred. Of course if you suffer anaphylaxis you may not have to worry about scars unless you can get emergency treatment quickly. There are around two hundred and eight species of the fire ant world wide so you have to watch out wherever you are. Schmidt, incidentally, is an American entomologist who wrote many papers on the subject of hymenoptera – and claims to have been stung by most of them.
Mutualism is a symbiotic relationship between two species, and so it is with the Bullhorn Acacia and the eponymous ant that inhabits its hollowed out thorns. The ants are essentially a defense mechanism (Def Ant Four perhaps) that protects it against animals, insects or us. As a thank you the tree supplies the ants with protein from the tips of its leaves and nectar from the glands situated on every leaf stalk. Where exactly evolution came in here is anyone’s guess as there is no other known function for these ‘beltian bodies’ (named after their discoverer, Thomas Belt). However, for their food the ants don’t half give a nasty nip, Schmidt rates it as 1.8 on his scale and compares it to as if someone has fired a staple into your cheek. A rare, piercing, elevated sort of pain.” Nice.
The Black Faced Hornet is an imposter! Not for being on this list, of course, but because it isn’t really a hornet at all. It was one of the yellow jacket species of wasps found in the United States and Canada. It has an exposed aerial nest which is reminiscent of hornets and that is why the name stuck. You can find this black and white beasty in its nest which can often reach three feet tall.
It is the female workers rather than the drones that possess the sting and it comes in at half way up the SSPI at 2. Schmidt gleefully tells us that this one is “Rich, hearty, slightly crunchy. Similar to getting your hand mashed in a revolving door.” Aah.
A relation of the above, this beautiful insect comes in at 2 on the SSPI as well. If you are from Europe you know this simply as a wasp, but in the US they have given it a rather more memorable name. None of the males can sting, so, gentlemen (and ladies) beware the female of the species.
Schmidt recognizes the fact that this is a painful stinger when he says “Hot and smoky, almost irreverent. Imagine WC Fields extinguishing a cigar on your tongue.” Their sting looks like a lance with small barbs and the Yellowjacket does not, as some believe, stop stinging you after the first attempt. They go at you repeatedly though it must be said that sometimes they strike with such force that the sting becomes embedded and when the wasp pulls back the sting is pulled free. If you just said ‘ew’ then you are not alone.
The Honey Bee (the European variety is shown above) comes from all over but seems to have started out in South East Asia. It is about the most plesiomorphic creature on the planet. That is, the Apis family to which it belongs is found in the fossil record from thirty million years ago as pretty much as it is now.
How many stings altogether that would be over the millions of years is anyone’s guess. How its sting feels many of you reading this will know already. How close is it to “like a matchhead that flips off and burns on your skin”? That is certainly how Schmidt describes it and the author, for one agrees. More painful than the yellowjacket, it is still, however, in the two of the SSPI. As is…
Appropriate that the two insects which share the same sting pain index should be pictured together. However, it is the European Hornet that is making a meal of the Honey Bee in the picture below, if you look closely.
This would in some quarters be referred to as a big mother and the queen can reach one and a half inches in length. Although this creature can sting with the best of them it is not a very aggressive creature. Go near or disturb its nest, however, and that is another story. Hold on tight, though, we are about to get to the threes on the SSPI. In the meantime, here's a European Hornet dismembering a hoverfly...
The South West of the United States is home to the Red Harvester Ants, which comes in at a three on the SSPI. As you may expect from their name, their food consists of seeds. These seeds are hoarded in huge numbers and are protected ferociously by the ants.
The sting itself is particularly nasty as it spreads to the lymph nodes of the victim and can cause nasty reaction. Schmidt does not shy away from putting words to effect to describe the sting – “Bold and unrelenting. Somebody is using a drill to excavate your toe nail.” Oh, they bite too.
The Paper Wasp will only attack if confronted or threatened, which is a shame if you find a nest in your loft but hey ho. When and if it does sting, though, you will be sorry. Schmidt compares it to something “Bold and unrelenting. Somebody is using a drill to excavate your ingrown toenail.”
They get their name from their nest which is made from dead wood fiber and the stems of plants. They mix it with their saliva and the result is a papery substance which is the perfect building material for their water resistant nest. Like the harvester ant, this is a three on our pain scale.
If you hunt Tarantulas for your supper then the bets must be on evens that you have a pretty almighty sting. So it is with the Tarantula Hawk Wasp which is at a four on the SSPI. With a very dark blue body and reddish wings, it doesn’t look terribly threatening.
However, they have enormous stingers, so large in fact that not many animals can eat them without doing themselves enormous damage. One creature that can is the Roadrunner. Well, beep ruddy beep. Although not aggressive unless provoked, best not to approach too closely. Schmidt tells us that the sting is “Blinding, fierce, shockingly electric. A running hair drier has been dropped into your bubble bath.”
At the top of the list with a Schmidt Sting Pain Index of four PLUS, is the Bullet Ant. You really do not want to be stung by one of these. You would suffer wave upon wave of burning pain which will not reduce for over a day – by which time you would no doubt wish you were dead anyway. It is found in the lowland rainforests of Nicaragua down to Paraguay.
It looks very much like a wasp which has had its wings pulled off (no doubt by a smug school boy, which would explain its anger). Not to put too fine a point on that, one of the coming of age rituals among indigenous peoples within its habitat is this. You don’t become a man until you have been stung by this creature twenty times. Without screaming. Let us leave the final description to Schmidt. The sting of the Bullet Ant is “Pure, intense, brilliant pain. Like fire-walking over flaming charcoal with a 3-inch rusty nail in your heel. Ouch,