Wednesday, February 04, 2009


I was going to say that if you're not a fan of insects or pain, this post isn't for you, but I'm highly averse to both and found what's below fascinating (if itch-inducing).

Through the indispensable Animal Review, which recently added the bullet ant to its catalog, I learned of Justin O. Schmidt, a retired entomologist, and the author of the Schmidt Sting Pain Index. The title is self-explanatory, but I'll explain it anyway: the index measures the severity of pain caused by various insects, and like grade-point averages, it tops out at 4.0.

Near the bottom (1.2) is the fire ant, whose sting Schmidt describes as, "Sharp, sudden, mildly alarming. Like walking across a shag carpet & reaching for the light switch."

Then there's the bullhorn acacia ant (1.8): "A rare, piercing, elevated sort of pain. Someone has fired a staple into your cheek."

Someone has fired a staple into my cheek, and we're at 1.8?

At 3.0 is the red harvester ant, and Schmidt uses an analogy involving an ingrown toenail that I can't even bring myself to reprint. Go find it for yourself.

Then, at 4.0, the tarantula hawk: "Blinding, fierce, shockingly electric. A running hair drier has been dropped into your bubble bath."

I know what you're thinking: Back up, did you just say tarantula hawk? I did, and unfortunately, I have now seen such a monstrosity. (Click here and brace yourself.) I wanted to be convinced that this was just a leftover prop from Pan's Labyrinth, but then I watched a two-part YouTube video of the tarantula hawk attacking and killing a tarantula. The good news is that, next to the tarantula, the hawk actually looks more like a normal wasp and less like a world-conquering wing-devil. The bad news is that the tarantula hawk paralyzes (doesn't kill) the spider and lays eggs on it, and everything that hatches will eventually finish off the job. Sweet, unmerciful god.

The bullet ant ranks a 4+ on the pain scale, meaning that when it walks into a bar, it shoves the tarantula hawk aside like a punk. One tribe in Brazil -- and this video truly is only for the non-creeped-out among you -- uses lots of the ants in a ritual that signals passage from boyhood to manhood, or at least passage from liking your membership in the tribe to really resenting it.

But back to Schmidt, please, who claims: "I never directly 'let myself be stung' by anything particularly painful. Those that are really painful are quite good at stinging one without help." But it seems he doesn't hold to his policy when it comes to his colleagues:
"I carry Benadryl whenever I go near him," said Dawn Gouge, an urban entomologist with the University of Arizona's Maricopa Agriculture Center. "He's loads of fun, but it hurts, generally. The first thing he ever said to me was, 'Put this bee on your arm and pull its head off.' "


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