Developing your pain palate

December 2, 2010

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The bullet ant is not to be messed with -- unless you want "pure, intense, brilliant pain." (Jerry Oldenettel)

“Caustic and burning. Distinctly bitter aftertaste. Like spilling a beaker of hydrochloric acid on a paper cut.” “Light, ephemeral, almost fruity. A tiny spark has singed a single hair on your arm.”

You could certainly be excused if these descriptions sound like they come out of Wine Spectator. But in fact they’re not describing the subtle notes of a good cabernet – rather, they are trying to communicate what it feels like to be stung by a Paper Wasp and a Sweat Bee.

They’re taken from the Schmidt Sting Pain Index, invented by entomologist Justin O. Schmidt. Each sting has a corresponding number, on a scale of one to four, indicating the degree of pain. But without doubt, it’s the more subjective descriptions that make this (semi-) scientific instrument so interesting. And yes, he says they all come from firsthand experience.

As part of our exploration of pain, Clever Apes chatted with Justin Schmidt about stinging insects. He explained not just what it feels like to be on the business end of a Bullet Ant (“Like fire-walking over flaming charcoal with a 3-inch rusty nail in your heel.”), but also why stinging insects tell such a fascinating story of chemistry and evolution.

Incidentally, if you have a strong stomach, you might enjoy this clip of a coming-of-age ritual involving bullet ants. This is how one Amazonian tribe marks passage into manhood. I feel that my bar mitzvah involved similar sensations.