Researcher tests bee sting pain

ILLUS-BeeSting-LisaTheriaultHoneybees sting student for science.

Michael Smith is a supreme badass. That’s the only term one could use to describe a man who had himself stung over 200 times by bees. Why would anyone do this, you ask? In the name of science, of course.

While studying honeybee behaviour and evolution as a grad student at Cornell University, Smith received a bee sting to the testicle. Surprisingly, he found the sting remarkably painless, and wondered how location played into the pain response.

The pain from a variety of insect stings was ranked by Justin Schmidt in 1990, in what is commonly known as the Schmidt Index. Pain is notoriously difficult to quantify, but studies have found that the best way to go about it is to rank it on a numerical scale. The Schmidt Index is a scale from zero to four, with a two representing the sting of a honeybee, which is described as “hot and smoky.”

Four on Schmidt’s scale is reserved for the undisputed sting king, the South American Bullet Ant, which Schmidt describes as being “pure, intense, brilliant pain, like fire-walking over flaming charcoal with a three-inch rusty nail grinding into your heel.” One thing that is not explicitly mentioned by Schmidt, however, is sting location—he notes that various body parts would likely respond differently, but this hadn’t been tested. Enter Michael Smith.

Cornell’s ethics board has no policy regarding self-experimentation, and Smith was able to test the stings on himself without red tape. So, at nine o’clock every morning, Schmidt would come into the lab and, before beginning his “routine bee work,” he would begin his tests.

Capturing five bees observed in “guarding behaviour” near the hive entrance (visible from their stance, guard workers are far more likely to sting immediately), Smith would press a bee against a chosen body part until he felt the sting, continuing to press for another five seconds. He then left the stinger in for a full minute before removing it.

And then he would repeat this twice more per body part. This went on for thirty-eight days. Oh, and did I mention that before and after his test stings, Schmidt would “calibrate” himself by stinging himself on the forearm? Or that, when he was done stinging himself for an hour, he would go in for the rest of his normal workday with his bees, in which he was routinely stung?

So, you’re asking, between squirms of sympathy pain, if you’re anything like me, what were his findings? Well, Smith notes that the map of sensory response and the map of pain response don’t overlay as you might expect. His scale, from one to ten, found the upper arm at the bottom of the scale (averaging 2.3). At the top was the penis at 7.3, the upper lip at 8.7, and the nostril at nine.

 Schmidt told one reporter, “You’re going to want more stings to the penis over the nose, if you’re forced to choose.” Until you can say that, with hard evidence behind your opinion, you have not chosen the thug life. Nor has it chosen you.

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