The Sting

Polistes fuscatus- photo by Bruce J. Marlin

There’s something called the Schmidt Scale of Pain– comparable to the Fujita Scale for tornadoes or the Scoville Scale for chili peppers. We like to have a tool for measuring whatever we experience, and the Schmidt Scale quantifies the severity of Hymenopteran stings. To come up with this scale, of course, someone had to actually get stung for science. Justin O. Schmidt is that special someone. In 1990 he published a paper on the subject, with descriptions that are truly inspired:

  • 1.0 Sweat bee: Light, ephemeral, almost fruity. A tiny spark has singed a single hair on your arm.
  • 1.2 Fire ant: Sharp, sudden, mildly alarming. Like walking across a shag carpet & reaching for the light switch.
  • 1.8 Bullhorn acacia ant: A rare, piercing, elevated sort of pain. Someone has fired a staple into your cheek.
  • 2.0 Bald-faced hornet: Rich, hearty, slightly crunchy. Similar to getting your hand mashed in a revolving door.
  • 2.0 Yellowjacket: Hot and smoky, almost irreverent. Imagine W. C. Fields extinguishing a cigar on your tongue.
  • 2.x Honey bee and European hornet: Like a matchhead that flips off and burns on your skin.
  • 3.0 Red harvester ant: Bold and unrelenting. Somebody is using a drill to excavate your ingrown toenail.
  • 3.0 Paper wasp: Caustic & burning. Distinctly bitter aftertaste. Like spilling a beaker of hydrochloric acid on a paper cut.
  • 4.0 Pepsis wasp: Blinding, fierce, shockingly electric. A running hair drier has been dropped into your bubble bath (if you get stung by one you might as well lie down and scream).
  • 4.0+ Bullet ant: Pure, intense, brilliant pain. Like walking over flaming charcoal with a 3-inch rusty nail in your heel.

In the last two days I’ve had the opportunity to sample the sting of the paper wasp firsthand. Two species, Polistes carolina and Polistes fuscatus have obligingly allowed me to make my own pain comparison. The last few days have been warm ones, and somehow these critters have been invading the house (along with a large number of ladybugs) and buzzing at the upstairs windows, looking for winter quarters or a way out. The last few days have felt like a siege- with these things droning around like scary little helicopters.

Three nights ago I was painting at my drafting table and felt a light flutter on my wrist. Absently I brushed it away and got instantly nailed by P. fuscatus. It hurt, but not as badly as I thought it would, although two days later my forarm was still red and swollen, probably an allergic reaction. Then, the night before last I stumbled barefoot at 3 a.m. into the kitchen for a drink of water and stepped on what first felt like a sand burr (having a long-haired dog in the country can be such a treat), but when the thorny pain grew exponentially into a flaming torch of agony, I turned on the light to find an angry P.carolina attached to my little toe, jabbing away. MUCH more painful than P. fuscatus. And my bleats of pain and bad language were more generous in proportion as well.

By the way, there is a P.carolina on the wall above me RIGHT NOW, behaving in a very threatening manner, and who knows when this horror will be over? All I can do for now is to stay vigilant, and pray for a cold spell.

Polistes carolina

Photos and description here 


12 thoughts on “The Sting

  1. Sean O'Donnell says:

    As Deb so eloquently notes, one thing that Dr. Schmidt failed to convey is the wide variation in pain induced by paper wasps of different species. In my experience they range from 1 (Protopolybia species) to 3.5 (Polistes erythropcephalus); word is that some Synoeca species pack a 4-worthy whallop. A really fascinating related issue is that species vary widely in how aggressively they will defend their nests. I particularly admire Parachartergus fraternus, workers of which have followed me stinging for nearly 1 km after messing with their nest, and can spray venom into the face from a distance.

  2. Jennifer Hanson says:

    What a scary post. The worst sting I’ve ever experienced was from stepping on a Velvet Ant (aka Cow Killer) in my grandmother’s front yard in central Florida. It happened many years ago, so time has doubtless enhanced the pain I felt at the time. I’d love to know where a Cow Killer’s sting ranks in this list.

  3. Dee says:

    Eeek! I just found your blog, which I have enjoyed. But, this post, is too realistic. My daughter and I seem to be paper wasp magnets. I can’t tell you which variety got us last year, but we both had allergic reactions to them.

    Thanks for an interesting and enlightening post.

  4. Charles says:

    Schmidt did not mention the red/black cow killer; not the cicada killer; not the puss caterpillar; not the Australian bulldog ant; not the giant Japanese hornet; etc. SO there are lots of HOLES in his “study.” It’s ridiculous to rate a red ant (harvester ant) as bad as a polistes Carolina (common red wasp). I have sampled both and the wasp is very easily much worse, probably only because the venom dose is larger. And the red wasp is VERY aggressive and occasionally fatal. They should always be taken seriously. Schmidt’s study as depicted on You Tube makes no mention of sting site and the pain is going to vary—anywhere on the face or neck will hurt worse than the arm or leg. When the stings were taken, were the venom sacs full? Some who’ve taken cicada killer stings claim the pain is just slight, others insist it’s like molten copper boiling under the skin and hurts for a week. The answer? Ahh, those who said it hurts just a little took stings just after it injected its load into a cicada & the venom sac was depleted. I seriously question the bullet ant could be the most painful because enough pain can kill by shocking the system. Natives take hundreds of stings and recover in a few days—outsiders also. But 30 red wasp stings can kill nonallergic person. The Jap hornet, the T Hawk and the red/black velvet ant are likely the worst 3 in the world. I also believe a bullet ant sting would leave the victim better off than a puss caterpillar sting, with its hematological attack on the injured tissues. Aussie bulldog ant stings are rated roughly as bad as red wasp stings. The cicada killer, fully charged, is the wild card. Some measure up to 55 millimeters and no other insect matches its flying power.

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