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.