The Worst Stinging Insects Alive
The Schmidt Pain Index
Brave, or crazy. This is the debate regarding how to describe Justin Schmidt, a well-known entomologist that took on a shockingly dangerous and incredibly painful experiment. Starting in 1984, Dr. Schmidt began allowing over 80 different types of Hymenoptera (the order of species that includes ants, bees and wasps) to sting him. He then recorded the experiences in depth and created a pain scale, called the Schmidt Pain Index, in order to rank the stings of these creatures.
The Schmidt Pain Index ranges from 1 – 4, with the higher numbers representing an increase in the intensity of the sting. Dr. Schmidt considered a rating of 1 to be an annoying, short lived sting, while 4 is what he would describe as agonizing torture.
Pain Rating: 1
These ants are native to central and south America but have made their way to the U.S. and are well known to be extremely aggressive. Not only do they have a tendency to kill other species of ants, but they have even committed murder within the animal kingdom, taking down small rodents and birds.
Schmidt described the sting as, “sharp, sudden, and mildly alarming.” While this does not sound bad at all, it is rare that people who encounter these insects walk away with only a single sting. Far more often, the accidental encounter with a colony leaves a victim with hundreds or even thousands of fiery stings.
This fiery feeling comes from the fact that their venom contains a toxin similar to piperidine, which is the compound in pepper that gives it it’s sharp, peppery flavor. This causes the itching and burning sensation and, while one sting may be just annoying, the combination of hundreds or thousands of stings can leave you feeling anything but mildly in pain.
Pain Rating: 2
Yellow Jackets are one of the most common culprits when it comes to being stung in your own backyard as they are native to North America. The sting is only rated a 2, with Dr. Schmidt explaining it felt, “hot and smoky, almost irreverent.”
The main concern that stems from these stings is that their stinger is not barbed, so, unlike bees, they are able to attack and sting you repeatedly.
Pain Rating: 3
These ants are native to the southwestern U.S. and get their name from their tendency to hoard and store seeds underground. They may sound docile, but if you ever find yourself near their colony, you may want to turn around and make yourself scarce as fast as possible. Coming in with a rating of 3, the sting of the harvester ant is described as, “bold and unrelenting. [It’s as though] somebody is using a power drill to excavate your ingrown toenail.”
Unfortunately, we don’t currently know much about their venom and how it works. However, we do know that it is highly deadly. Less than a mere 10mg of the venom can kill an average human, making it comparable to other highly venomous beings such as the cobra. Thankfully, due to the ants’ tiny stature, they are only able to carry and inject a miniscule amount of venom at a time, rendering them rather harmless. However, you still do want to be cautious around a colony as several hundred stings will start to bring you closer to that lethal dose of venom – not to mention it will be really painful as well.
The Red-Headed Paper Wasp
Pain Rating: 3
This wasp is also indigenous to central and south America. It is easily distinguishable due to its black body and unmistakably red head. Schmidt gave these wasps a rating of a 3 on the Pain Index is due to its “immediate, irrationally intense, and unrelenting” sensation.
There is not enough research on this specific species of wasp and its venom to understand what causes this particular sensation. However, other wasps within the same genus are known to contain kinins (pain-inducing and inflammation causing molecules) within their venom. Kinins activate your pain sensing nerves, affecting your neurons directly, which is why they are classified as a neurotoxin. In great doses, the venom can be used as a paralyzing agent – but their stings carry so little venom that this does not affect humans. Red-headed paper wasps are only really dangerous in swarms or if the victim is allergic to the pest.
Pain Rating: 4
These wasps are also known as drumming wasps due to their curious tendency to create a loud drumming noise. This noise is created by simultaneously and rhythmically scraping on their hive when they feel threatened. Similar to the rattling of a rattlesnake warning those in its vicinity to back off or it will strike, this is a warning prior to an extremely painful onslaught of stings. This cautionary drumming is thought to be performed in order to avoid confrontation due to the fact that their stingers are barbed. This means, similar to bees, once they sting, their stingers detach from their bodies, sticking in their victims and ultimately killing the wasps.
For these rhythmic South American wasps, Schmidt doles out his highest rating. His recollection of the encounter was that it was utterly excruciating. He compared it to “torture” and said it felt like “you are chained in the flow of an active volcano. The pain is also unrelenting, sometimes lasting over 2 hours. As such, it seems to be in the best interest of both you and warrior wasps to stay away from one another.
Pain Rating: 4
Don’t let its name fool you – these stinging pests are neither tarantulas nor hawks. They are actually a type of wasp that live in the southwestern United States and are so named due to their large size and preferred diet of tarantulas. Their size and long, gangly legs are what allow these wasps to hunt tarantulas and bring them back to their young for feeding. Even with their long legs however, wriggling tarantulas can be hard to control, which is where their venom comes into play – the powerful toxin helps subdue their prey – paralyzing it.
Utterly agonizing, their stings are “blinding, fierce, [and] shockingly electric” as though “a running hair dryer has been dropped into your bubble bath.” This immensely tormenting nature of the sting is due to its high concentration of acetylcholine, which is a neurotransmitter that affects both motor and pain neurons in the body. This causes intensely painful cramps as your muscles violently contract, paralyzing those areas of your body. Luckily, since acetylcholine is found naturally within our nervous systems, are bodies are able to remove the excess of the chemical and restore the body to homeostasis within a matter of a few minutes.
Pain Rating: 4+
These ants are named for the fact that their stings are comparable to the pain of being shot. A 4 was too low of a rating for Schmitt, so he decided to assign it a rating of 4+ due to its utterly agonizing affects. It is “pure, intense, brilliant pain, [like] fire-walking over flaming charcoal with a 3-inch rusty nail grinding into your heel.” Coupled with this excruciating pain, these stings come with a host of side effects including sweating, uncontrollable shaking, elevated fever, and even paralysis.
In Central America, where bullet ants are indigenous, they are referred to as the 24-hour ant. This is due to the fact that the neurotoxin in the bullet ant venom, called poneratoxin, is incredibly potent and will persist in the human body for around 24 hours, constantly triggering your pain receptors as it does.
8 of the Worst Stinging Insects (2017) SciShow. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3NHJjEFk32c&t=322s