Stinging Curiosity

Justin Schmidt endured more than 80 types of stings to study eusociality in insects

A curious University of Georgia graduate student in the mid-1970s, Justin Schmidt (Ph.D. – Entomology, ’77) didn’t set out to research the evolution of eusociality, high-level societal organization by a group of animals. But about 40 years later, he’s become known as “The Connoisseur of Pain” by The New York Times magazine or, more commonly in his field, as “The Man Who Got Stung for Science.”

Looking to apply his interest in chemistry to agriculture, Schmidt was curious about how the pain of snake and other venoms compared to insect stings.

“In science, we can’t just translate words into meaningful comparisons for scientific analyses,” he said. “How do we do that? Everything is pretty much digital. It’s got a number, a plus or a minus, a ‘1’ or a ‘0’ … So I concluded that we can actually rate (the stings) on a scale comparing the numbers of how much they hurt.”

Enter the Schmidt sting pain index, which puts the strength of various insect stings on a scale. Schmidt described honeybees as the most common sting and a sort of baseline when compared to a host of other insects, like fire ants, sweat bees, tarantula hawks or bullet ants.

“My hypothesis was the reason they could become social and deter things like possums and skunks and raccoons is they had a sting that is very effective,” he said. “How can you measure that? That was the genesis of the sting pain scale.”

The College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences alumnus has experienced 83 different types of stings as part of his research and developed the scale from below 1 to 4, with 4 being excruciatingly painful. Still, Schmidt doesn’t see himself as having a high pain tolerance and said, because it’s subjective, there’s no way for different people to truly compare pain.

Schmidt explained that, in the mid-1970s in his field, much of the research was centered on mathematical and genetic theories about why insects evolved eusociality. He dismissed the description of himself as a pioneer or trailblazer.

“I was just a poor graduate student,” he said. “I was thinking I wanted to get my degree and go off, get a job and do science. I was thinking, ‘How do we measure this?’ There hadn’t been anything before, and it was simply a tool that I sort of thought of as a solution.”

In May 2016, Schmidt, currently an adjunct professor at the University of Arizona, published a book, “The Sting of the Wild,” that he described as something to pass down to future generations of students who have a love of science and as a tool to help people and insects get along.

Schmidt was the keynote speaker at a fundraising event for The Friends of the Georgia Museum of Natural History in October and plans to offer more seminars at UGA.

By Keith Farner

Justin Schmidt developed a scale to use in comparing the pain of various insect bites.

The Sting of the Wild book cover