World's Most Painful Insect Bites

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Christophe Quintin

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Next time you’re out hiking,
avoid these insects at all costs.

There’s
something on your face. You feel it land on your cheek, and when it stings, the
pain is overwhelming. Your shrieks send the monkeys into whoops of primal
terror. All you can do is writhe in agony and pray to live. You’ve just been
stung by a bullet ant.

The bullet ant
owns the title of earth’s most painful insect bite. It feels like being shot
with a gun (hence the name), and the pain can last for 12 hours. But it’s
hardly the only creepy-crawly creature that can elicit cries from its victims.
The earth is covered with insects that can make the toughest traveler weep. In
other words, watch out for them when you’re in the rainforest—or even your
backyard.

Ironically, the
bullet ant’s sting isn’t dangerous. Insects cause pain or injury, but seldom
both, according to entomologist Justin Schmidt, research director of Arizona’s
Southwest Biological Institute and coauthor of the book Insect Defenses.
And Schmidt should know: he’s been stung by tons of insects (including the
bullet ant) in the name of research.

All this pain
has enabled him to create the Schmidt Pain Index, comparing nonlethal insect
stings and bites in the same way that the Scoville Scale ranks the heat of
chile peppers. “The sting of a honeybee is a messy and burning pain, while the
trap-jaw ant has a very medicinal, almost synthetic feel with no burning or
itching,” explains Schmidt in a tone of reverence.

The Schmidt Pain
Index reads like a sommelier’s diary. At the lowest end of the scale is the
sting of the sweat bee, which Schmidt describes as “light, ephemeral, almost
fruity, as if a tiny spark has singed a single hair on your arm.” At the top
end of the scale is transcendental agony. Take the tarantula hawk wasp. Its
sting, according to Schmidt’s index, is “blinding, fierce, shockingly electric,
like a running hair dryer has been dropped into your bubble bath.”

What’s most surprising,
perhaps, is the fact that some fearsome creatures can be comparatively
harmless. “During a lecture, I provoked the biggest bark scorpion to sting me.
It hurt less than a honeybee,” says Schmidt. But sometimes, the least obvious
insects administer some of the most agonizing stings. Ants, bees, and wasps can
inject toxins powerful enough to make anyone cry for their mommy. Such an
impressive arsenal may seem like overkill, but to an insect protecting the
welfare of the entire colony, it’s a perfectly reasonable response.

If you’re unfortunate enough
to be stung by one of these creatures, you could take a painkiller, but don’t
expect much relief: insect toxins have uniquely evolved so as to not trigger
the body’s natural pain-numbing endorphins. Schmidt’s advice: suffer through it
and fully experience the wonder of nature.

World's Most Painful Insect Bites

Next time you’re out hiking,
avoid these insects at all costs.

There’s
something on your face. You feel it land on your cheek, and when it stings, the
pain is overwhelming. Your shrieks send the monkeys into whoops of primal
terror. All you can do is writhe in agony and pray to live. You’ve just been
stung by a bullet ant.

The bullet ant
owns the title of earth’s most painful insect bite. It feels like being shot
with a gun (hence the name), and the pain can last for 12 hours. But it’s
hardly the only creepy-crawly creature that can elicit cries from its victims.
The earth is covered with insects that can make the toughest traveler weep. In
other words, watch out for them when you’re in the rainforest—or even your
backyard.

Ironically, the
bullet ant’s sting isn’t dangerous. Insects cause pain or injury, but seldom
both, according to entomologist Justin Schmidt, research director of Arizona’s
Southwest Biological Institute and coauthor of the book Insect Defenses.
And Schmidt should know: he’s been stung by tons of insects (including the
bullet ant) in the name of research.

All this pain
has enabled him to create the Schmidt Pain Index, comparing nonlethal insect
stings and bites in the same way that the Scoville Scale ranks the heat of
chile peppers. “The sting of a honeybee is a messy and burning pain, while the
trap-jaw ant has a very medicinal, almost synthetic feel with no burning or
itching,” explains Schmidt in a tone of reverence.

The Schmidt Pain
Index reads like a sommelier’s diary. At the lowest end of the scale is the
sting of the sweat bee, which Schmidt describes as “light, ephemeral, almost
fruity, as if a tiny spark has singed a single hair on your arm.” At the top
end of the scale is transcendental agony. Take the tarantula hawk wasp. Its
sting, according to Schmidt’s index, is “blinding, fierce, shockingly electric,
like a running hair dryer has been dropped into your bubble bath.”

What’s most surprising,
perhaps, is the fact that some fearsome creatures can be comparatively
harmless. “During a lecture, I provoked the biggest bark scorpion to sting me.
It hurt less than a honeybee,” says Schmidt. But sometimes, the least obvious
insects administer some of the most agonizing stings. Ants, bees, and wasps can
inject toxins powerful enough to make anyone cry for their mommy. Such an
impressive arsenal may seem like overkill, but to an insect protecting the
welfare of the entire colony, it’s a perfectly reasonable response.

If you’re unfortunate enough
to be stung by one of these creatures, you could take a painkiller, but don’t
expect much relief: insect toxins have uniquely evolved so as to not trigger
the body’s natural pain-numbing endorphins. Schmidt’s advice: suffer through it
and fully experience the wonder of nature.

Christophe Quintin

World's Most Painful Insect Bites

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