"Does it sting?" It's a question we find ourselves asking when we encounter a strange insect. And sure, it's great to know whether you need to steer clear of a particular invertebrate — however not all insect stings are created equal: Some stings you might hardly feel at all, others might hurt initially and gradually just become itchy and swollen, and some insects will hand your own rear end to you on a silver platter and make you wonder why you were born.
A lot of what we know about the relative unpleasantness of different insect bites comes from an entomologist named Justin O. Schmidt, director of the Southwest Biological Institute in Tucson, Arizona and author of "The Sting of the Wild," a treatise on stinging insects in which he includes the "Schmidt Sting Pain Index," a four-point numerical ranking of the relative suffering inflicted by different insect stings. Schmidt's pain scale of insect stings is organized into levels, ranging between 1 and 4, with 1 being the most bearable to 4+ being the most horrific. So, if an insect, like the club-horned wasp (Sapyga pumila), earns an 0.5, you'll know it's really nothing to write home about ("Disappointing," according to Schmidt. "A paperclip falls on your bare foot."), whereas anything above a 2 is a sting you can begin breaking out the stationary for.
Here's how insect stings stack up, according to Schmidt, from the least to the most painful:
1. Anthophorid Bee (Neolarra vigilans)
Schmidt has described the sting of the Anthophorid bee, categorized as a pain level 1 sting, as "almost pleasant, a lover just bit your earlobe a little too hard." Without doubt, we can all handle that level of pain, right? Let's move on into the more serious, No. 2 on the pain scale stuff.
2. Western Honey Bee (Apis mellifera)
It's likely you've been stung by a honey bee before, so Schmidt uses it at a reference point, giving its sting a 2 out of 4: "Burning, corrosive, but you can handle it. A flaming match head lands on your arm and is quenched first with lye and then sulfuric acid."
3. Harvester Ant (Pogonomyrmex spp.)
The venom of a harvester ant is extravagantly toxic: It's about 40 times more potent than that of a western diamondback rattlesnake (Crotalus atrox), although an individual ant doesn't pack very much of it. A sting from one of these, which Schmidt gives a 3 out of 4, is excruciatingly painful and long-lasting — sort of a deep ripping, unsubsiding pain different from other insect venom, and as few as 12 of these stings could kill a 4.4 pound (2 kilogram) rat. Schmidt has found the chemistry of harvester ant venom to be very different than that of other stinging insects, so it follows that it a hit of their venom would be accompanied by unique symptoms: sweating and hair standing on end around the bite, for instance.
4. Tarantula Hawk Wasp (Pepsis spp.)
In "The Sting of the Wild", the advice Schmidt gives his readers who are unfortunate enough to run afoul of a tarantula hawk is to allow themselves to just lie down and scream. "The pain is so debilitating and excruciating that the victim is at risk of further injury by tripping in a hole or over an object in the path and then falling onto a cactus or into a barbed-wire fence." He gives this painful bite a 4 out of 4.
4+. Bullet Ant (Paraponera clavata)
Armed with the most painful bite of any known insect, bullet ant venom contains a unique peptide called poneratoxin that is so powerful that a single sting from one of these monsters could kill a mid-sized squirrel. Native to South America, bullet ants have played a part in the warrior initiation rites of some Amazonian tribes. Schmidt describes the pain thusly:
"Pure, intense, brilliant pain. Like walking over a flaming charcoal with a 3-inch nail embedded in your heel." He gives this bite a whopping 4+ on his pain scale.
One wonders, as Schmidt asks himself in his description of the sting of the South American armadillo wasp (Synoeca septentrionalis), which he ranks as a 4 on the pain scale, "Torture. You are chained in the flow of an active volcano. Why did I start this list?"