It's a sting operation for bug professor
Michaela Kane / The Daily Wildcat
Justin Schmidt, an entomologist at the UA, captures a grasshopper on Monday, Oct. 28. Schmidt’s work at the university involves understanding the behavior and defenses of stinging insects.
Justin Schmidt has been stung by insects 150 times.
While this may seem like an extreme high number, for Schmidt, an entomologist at the UA, the stings are just an occupational hazard.
Schmidt didn’t always dream of being stung by insects — he initially studied chemistry, earning his doctorate from the University of Georgia. But even though he enjoyed chemistry, he knew something was missing.
“All my friends were zoologists, geologists, you know, people who were outdoors all the time,” Schmidt said. “And I thought, well, I’m sitting here in the lab in a white coat smelling benzene and carbon tetrachloride … and all my friends are having this fun.”
Schmidt enrolled in the only entomology class his university offered and, using his studies in chemistry, specialized in researching the pheromones and venoms of stinging insects. Throughout the course of his research, Schmidt has researched everything from the behaviors of killer bees to the natural history of the Vinegaroons Whip Scorpions.
“He’s driven by curiosity,” said Karen Kester, an entomologist at Virginia Commonwealth University who worked with Schmidt during her time as a post doctorate researcher at the UA. “He is truly passionate about what he does.”
While his contributions to entomology have been numerous, what he is best-known for is a bit more unusual.
Because Schmidt has been stung by such a high number of insects, he has established his own pain scale: the Schmidt Sting Pain Index.
The idea for the scale started with a harvester ant sting.
“It had just this amazing reaction,” said Schmidt. “It hurt, like, for hours. It felt like someone was ripping under my skin and yanking out all the tendons and muscles and nerves. This just went up and down in waves.”
This sting was like nothing Schmidt had experienced before, and he wanted to know why this particular insect’s sting hurt more than that of a wasp or honeybee. Schmidt investigated the venom of the ant and found that harvester ants are 10 times more toxic than a honeybee, which, according to Schmidt, is drop for drop more toxic than the venom of a western diamondback rattlesnake.
This realization brought up a slew of new questions for Schmidt who, with prompting from a professor, began to research the stings of other insects to compare the pain and toxicity levels of their venom.
This posed a problem in and of itself, because while the physiological damage the sting caused was easy to quantify, measuring the pain from the sting was untouched territory.
Schmidt started his research by looking into how chronic pain is measured in humans, using the 10-point scale to rate pain. However, he knew this scale would prove to be too inaccurate to measure pain from insect stings because he could not differentiate between a 6 and a 7 or a 3 and a 4 in terms of pain. Instead, Schmidt used a 4-point scale, ranking the honeybee sting at 2 to establish a middle ground.
Schmidt found that solitary bees that roam the desert, such as the palo verde bee and the cactus bee, have stings that are generally not painful, ranking a 1 or 2 on his pain scale.
At the opposite end of the pain spectrum is the sting of the bullet ants, which are aptly named, Schmidt said, as their stings are the most painful he’s ever encountered.
“It would go in these huge waves and hit this crescendo, and you thought you were going to die,” Schmidt said. The pain from the bullet ant’s sting can last anywhere from 12-24 hours. He’s been stung by these insects a total of four times.
“Other people have tried to update the index, but his remains the standard,” said Kester. “It has not only stood the test of time, but it has gained popularity.”
Was the pain from the stings worth the gains in research?
“It’s a price you pay,” Schmidt said. “I’d rather get stung by any of these things than get hit by a linebacker.”