The King of Sting

Features - Cover Story

Justin O. Schmidt can personally tell you how the sting of 80 species feels. Here’s how he got ‘bitten’ by a love for insects and what drove him to remote places around the world to find stinging things.

August 11, 2016

How often do you get stung on the job? To what lengths will you go to avoid getting pierced by a looming wasp or jabbed by an agitated yellow jacket? Most of us are not in the business of getting stung — but duty calls. Venomous casualties happen.

Just ask the King of Sting, entomologist Justin O. Schmidt of the University of Arizona. In his book “The Sting of the Wild,” Schmidt takes you along on his wild expeditions to examine and extract the venom of stinging insects for study. As a biologist and chemist whose first love is bugs, Schmidt is fascinated by “the chemistry of communication.” That includes venom — and just how unique every sting is, and why.

He created the Schmidt Sting Pain Index. (You might know it from Marvel’s “AntMan.”) Rating some 80 insect stings from 1 to 4, he offers lyrical insight on bites he has “collected” during the last 30 years of field study.

For instance, a club-horned wasp rated as a 0.5 is merely, “Disappointing. A paperclip falls on your bare foot.” An Indian jumping ant commonly found in Asia rates a 1. Schmidt writes, “Ah, that wonderful wake-up feeling, like coffee but oh so bitter.” If you’re wondering about a 4, the warrior wasp earns this venomous merit. “Torture,” Schmidt reports. “You are chained in the flow of an active volcano. Why did I start this list?”

That’s a good question. PCT magazine talked with Schmidt to find out.

INTEREST GREW IN A BIG BACKYARD. I grew up in the Appalachian Mountains of Pennsylvania, which is a nice area because of its hills and lots of abandoned fields, brooks and places to play with frogs, catch salamanders and, of course, chase bugs. My first real interest was when my sister had a section in class about insects and I was about 5 years old. She learned the different orders and common names of insects, and I thought that was pretty cool. It takes a mentor of some sort — and that can be a family member or anyone else.

ADVENTURE WAS JOB ONE. I was a rascally kid — we all were in those days. We were harmless. We didn’t get into anything really bad, just mischievous. We’d throw rocks at hornet nests, all for good clean fun and a bit of adventure. I think we protect our kids too much today, and they need to go out and have fun and take some risks, as long as they won’t be risks that will cause any real damage. We were given free reign and we roamed around — we could be a half-mile away. We took care of each other if something was wrong.

THE HUNT IS FASCINATING. I had another mentor who was four years older than me, and he was an amateur dragonfly collector, a really good one. Today, he is a professor of biochemistry at the University of Delaware. Anyway, he would take me out and we’d catch dragonflies and he could identify them. I wasn’t nearly as experienced and was more into getting into the water and catching them — the adventure of the hunt. After that, I was hooked on science.

CHEMISTRY = A PAYCHECK? I had been really good at arithmetic-type math when I was at school, and we had a really strong science and math program. I got into physics, chemistry, math and biology. You can’t really make a living studying bugs, I thought, and chemistry seemed like a field where I could at least feed myself. Kind of like biology but getting into experiments. So there were two or three of us kids in middle and high school and we just had fun making rockets and doing the things you are not supposed to talk about. I earned two degrees in chemistry, a bachelor’s and master’s.

BUT LABS ARE PRETTY STERILE. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, I just kind of decided (chemistry) wasn’t as much fun as what my roommates were doing who were in biology and geology. They were getting out and stomping around outside. I was sitting cooped up in a lab — which, labs are fun, but not all of the time. You need something else. So I took an entomology seminar course and I really enjoyed it. I got into the chemistry of pheromones — the chemistry of communication. I worked on chemical defenses: throwing acids and noxious substances at adversaries and things trying to do you harm. And I went to my professor and asked, “Is there any hope for a washed-up chemist to go into entomology?” “Yes!” he said.

Female velvet ants are wingless solitary wasps that are often colorful and seen in open areas during the summer. They range in size from small, as in this 6-mm Dasymutilla asteria, to huge, nearly 25-mm “cow killers.” Sting pain ratings: 1–3 on the Schmidt Sting Pain Index, depending on the size of the ant. (Source: “The Sting of the Wild”)

That encouraged me and I went to Georgia, and that is pretty much where the book starts. I was out in the field and, yes, I was getting stung. It comes with the territory. After a wonderful day in the field, you don’t let a sting or two sour the really fun time you had.

ALL STINGS ARE NOT EQUAL. As I said, when I was younger we would go kick an ant mound, you know, we’d harass them. I got stung (in the field) and thought, ‘Whoa! This is not the ant I know!’ This was chemistry coming into real life. My poor wife got stung not as many times as I did, but we both got stung. We went on to do a comparative biochemistry study to determine, “How unusual are these venoms? Are they really novel, or are venoms all similar?” We embarked on an adventure that has taken me some 30 years. And yes, these (stings) are absolutely unique.

PURSUING VENOM. To do one venom test, we had to dissect 3,000 to 5,000 harvester ants (it takes 2½ to 3 minutes to do each one), which are the most toxic. There are about 50 different species of harvester ants, but we found the most toxic one, which fortuitously happened to be an hour and 15 minutes from where I lived in Tucson. My wife dissected about 5,000 ants to get enough venom. The test was to determine how resistive is the famous horned lizards. They are 1,200 times more resistant than mammals, and venom just doesn’t do anything to them. We wanted to know how they were doing this, and it took a lot of venom to figure that out. It turns out, there was a blood factor, which we haven’t identified, that seems to neutralize (the venom).

THIS WAS ALL SIDE WORK. My paycheck came from doing honeybee research — the physiology and nutrition of honeybees. They were in feed lots where there weren’t enough flowers for them to survive on their own, and my job was to make feedlot food for these honeybees. I was working on killer bees, which I thought was more fun. They, of course, sting. I developed some control system for them and did analysis of basic venom chemistry and a lot of public relations to help people realize these things aren’t as bad as people say. So, don’t shut down the whole honeybee industry because you are afraid of one killer bee. We need bees, and killer bees are a just a little more feisty than regular bees.

I was getting paid for that, and all of my “venom work” was on weekends and nights. I did get some small grants and had some students helping once in a while. That’s why it took more than three decades.

COLLECTING VENOM TAKES YOU FAR. I looked for different insects by using a little bit of Sherlock Holmes sleuthing. I’d research the old literature, the old English and American naturalists. They’d go on adventures into the Congo or Borneo or Australia. And they would report in their travelogues. So I’d get a great idea from them about a powerful stinging and hurting species, and I’d go to the museums. Without museums, we’d be lost. They have the information of where, when and how to find these things. You put all of that together and go on an expedition — you go and look for the insects.

THE STING WAS NEVER ON PURPOSE. It was usually fortuitous. You stumble around, and in some cases you are looking for rare insects in locations. So you’d finally get to the right area and the right time, and you’d get lucky and find one. My type of research is unlike others where you can take pictures or observe with pen and notebook. Or, collect a few insects to mount in museums. Most researchers are doing those things. I was doing the biochemistry, which was kind of primitive. We didn’t have systems for identifying minute quantities (of venom), so we had to get quite a bit of it. That meant I needed 1,000 individual insects to get enough material to answer a question I was researching. Plus, I never knew if I’d see the species again so I wanted to collect as many as possible.

The upshot is, I had to collect a huge number of insects, which means attacking the colony and digging up every individual. Or, I’d open up the part of a tree and do whatever it took to get all of them. When you do that, insects take umbrage. Sooner or later, if you are collecting 1,000 or so ants, they will greet you — and you get stung. That is how all of the painful things I experienced happened.

A male tiphiid wasp jabs its pseudosting into the author’s finger. Males of stinging insects lack a true stinger, but some species are able to jab their sharp pseudostings into captors, thereby startling the captor into releasing the harmless male. Sting pain rating: 0 on the Schmidt Sting Pain Index. (Source: “The Sting of the Wild”)

ONE TIME IN BORNEO... I was quite frustrated because I needed to keep the material on ice because I was collecting during the day. I had a portable microscope I rigged up with power sources. If all else failed, I had lantern batteries I carried with me. I’d buy an ice chest, no matter where I was. I’d stop in at a restaurant and ask, “Can you sell me some ice?” And they thought, “Who is this loo-loo-crazy?” and they’d sell me something that was probably five times overpriced, but I didn’t care because I needed the ice. I needed to collect insects and keep them alive. They’ll die at room temperature within an hour or two, and on ice you can keep them for three to four days. So, I have all of this baggage I carry with me.

In one adventure in Borneo, we were up on the slopes of Mount Kinabalu, and we came to a clear-cut logging area and there was this bulldozer. We put up a black light and began collecting ants, wasps and great stuff in this virgin rainforest. It turned out we could hook up my light to the battery on the bulldozer, and it was over a weekend when no one else was working.

After three days there, the guy came back to run the bulldozer and we were wondering if we deadened the battery because we were running the black lights (for finding insects) the whole weekend. But he was none the wiser. Later, I wrote a tongue-in-cheek article entitled, “Bulldozers and Other Essential Equipment for Tropical Collecting.”

AFRICA LACKED THE BITE. One of the surprises is that there aren’t that many painful stinging things in Africa. I’ve been there three times, including to Mozambique and Zimbabwe. Wasps are in very low supply there, unlike Central and South America, which is teeming with wonderful stinging wasps. I was surprised at how the second biggest continent, and the most fascinating continent, really had few stinging insects. And most didn’t really hurt that much. I thought it would be the great mother lode, and it was probably less intimidating than the good, old U-S-of-A as far as stinging things goes.

AUSTRALIA, LAND OF SUPERLATIVES. We all know about the dreadful snakes that with one bite you can count down from 10 to when you’re going to die. They are really venomous. And there are some of the most dangerous stingrays there, and the platypus, which is one of the few mammals that is actually venomous. Australia is the land of superlatives, especially for stinging and venomous things. They have some 100 species of bulldog ants that are reputed to be incredibly fierce and dangerous. I was really chomping at the bit to get to Australia.

And I was surprised in two ways. First, the bulldog ants were extremely agile and they had big eyes and could focus their heads and follow you. They are light and fast — and they jump! Jumping ants? These things jumped! I was not really anticipating what a wonderful species they were. But I was surprised that their sting was less than a honeybee. I believed these things would rate a 3 or 4, be way up there on the list of insects that really nailed you. You have to respect them. But the degree of hurt was much less than I expected.

THE LAB BOOKS FILLED UP. I’ve been keeping notes since the 1970s, so I have a fire safe full of 15 lab books with my primary data. The ultimate goal was to publish a very strong, convincing article conveying the fact that social insects evolved mainly because they have a way to defend themselves and that unique way is their sting and venom that can protect them against big and dangerous adversaries. So in order to do that, I had to collect data from 80-some species and get to the point where I had enough data.

The well was starting to dry up as far as getting new material. I’d have to go to Congo and risk my life, and it’s really tough to get to these remote places. I had enough material to do what I wanted to do, and it was getting harder to get more. So, I decided to write a paper, and at that time my editor at Johns Hopkins University Press said, “Why don’t you write a book?” It never occurred to me. Writing for the public and making it fun and educational is different than scientific writing, which is factual. I thought, I’m not getting any younger, and I don’t want this material to go to the grave with me.

PMPs HAVE THE PRESCRIPTION. They’re on the front lines. It’s good to be knowledgeable and have some fun stories, as well as the facts to share. Their business is to provide a service of goodwill, and to help allay the fear of customers. If a customer calls for something harmless like a carpenter bee or leaf cutter bee that chews up roses or solitary things, you can let them know these are not a stinging threat. (Most of the insects professionals get calls about are covered in the book.) You can allay their fears on a five-minute phone call, and they will be grateful.

WHAT’S NEXT FOR YOU? I’m working on kissing bugs, another major pest control problem. They transmit disease and they live in the whole southern third of the United States. They can cause really miserable allergic reactions. We’re doing research to try to get a repellent — DEET doesn’t work. And if we come up with something that works for kissing bugs, will it work for bed bugs, as well? Kissing bugs are tough cookies, and so we’re doing a lot of basic work on those.

The author is a frequent contributor to PCT.