The Most Painful Place To Be Stung By A Bee

By Nolan Moore on Tuesday, July 8, 2014
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“Cornell University’s Human Research Protection Program does not have a policy regarding researcher self-experimentation, so this research was not subject to review from their offices. The methods do not conflict with the Helsinki Declaration of 1975, revised in 1983. The author was the only person stung, was aware of all associated risks therein, gave his consent, and is aware that these results will be made public.” —Michael Smith, researcher

In A Nutshell

Justin Schmidt and Michael Smith are two peas in the proverbial pod. Both are fascinated with venomous insects and painful experiments. In 1984, Schmidt conducted a bizarre test to see which bug had the worst sting, but Smith one-upped him with a study published earlier this year. This Cornell grad student let honeybees sting him all over his body in an odd quest to find the most painful spot to get stung by a bee. He ranked the nose as the worst of the worst.

The Whole Bushel

In 1984, an entomologist named Justin Schmidt wanted to find out which insect possessed the most painful sting. Of course, since he wasn’t a Nazi or a six-fingered count, there was only one way he could conduct such an excruciating experiment. Either because he was incredibly brave, awfully stupid, or slightly masochistic, Schmidt let bugs from 150 different species jab their venom-filled needles into his vulnerable skin and then ranked their stings on a scale of 0 to 4.

Putting a funny twist on his terrible test, Schmidt described the stings in delightfully macabre terms. For example, a bald-faced hornet’s sting was “similar to getting your hand mashed in a revolving door,” and the red harvest ant’s was like “somebody is using a drill to excavate your ingrown toenail.” Of course, most of us probably haven’t encountered horrible creatures like the tarantula hawk or the bullhorn acacia ant so let’s look at a few familiar species to get an idea of Schmidt’s agony.

Ever been stung by a fire ant? Schmidt gives these little demons a 1.2 and describes their peppery poison as “walking across a shag carpet and reaching for the light switch.” Ever been unfortunate enough to stumble across a yellowjacket? Ranking 2.0 on the Schmidt scale, their venom feels similar to “W.C. Fields extinguishing a cigar on your tongue.” However, the most powerful sting belongs to the bullet ant, a Central American monster whose venom rates a whopping 4.0+. Getting stung by one of these beasts will feel like you’re “fire-walking over flaming charcoal with a 3-inch rusty nail grinding into your heel.” Ouch.

And all this leads us to the humble honeybee, the insect that provides us with the syrupy golden liquid that tastes so good in tea and on toast. This little devil also packs quite a wallop and has reduced many a grown man to tears. Whenever one of these gals gets you (only female honeybees can sting), it pumps you full of peptides and enzymes that obliterate your cells and send the body into red alert, sending out histamine to slow down blood flow and immune cells to take out the venom. And where does this prickly poke rank on the Schmidt scale? It scores a respectable 2.0, and while that’s not bad as a bullet ant, it’s not a sensation you want on, let’s say, your testicles.

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened to a Cornell University graduate student named Michael Smith. Smith specializes in the study of honeybees, and one day at work, one of the insects crawled up his leg and, well, stung him on the balls. Obviously, it wasn’t fun, but surprisingly, it didn’t hurt as much as Smith thought it would. As he mulled over his unlucky encounter, he suddenly got a crazy idea that would’ve made Justin Schmidt swell with pride. He would find out which body part was the worst place to get stung by a bee. And of course, he would experiment on himself.

Over the course of 38 days, Smith let honeybees sting him on 25 different spots, three times apiece. They stung him on places like the wrist, heel, nipple, and rear. And before and after each session, Smith administered “test stings” to his forearm, you know, for perspective. In total, he suffered 190 bee stings and assigned a rating to each body part based on how much it hurt. For example, the top of the head, the upper arm, and the middle toe ranked a measly 2.3.

Moving up the Smith scale, the thigh scored 4.3, the ear 5.3, and the testicles (which started this whole thing) won a severe 7.0. But what was the most painful place to get stung? Well, according to Smith, the third most painful spot was the penis, which earned a 7.3. The second most painful spot was the upper lip, which ranked an 8.7 and probably made talking really difficult. As for the top slot, Smith says the championship title belongs to the nose. With a savage rating of 9.0, Smith described the pain as “electric and pulsating,” claiming the venom caused his whole body to freak out and brought on an awful attack of the sneezes. So what should you do if a bee lands on your schnoz? Well, Smith says keep really calm and hold your breath. After all, bees are attracted to carbon dioxide. Hopefully, it’ll just fly away. If not, well, you’re in for a lot of misery.

Show Me The Proof

io9.com: 10 Painful Insect Stings, as Measured by Science
HowStuffWorks: How Bees Work
National Geographic: The Worst Places To Get Stung By A Bee: Nostril, Lip, Penis
Independent: Where is the worst place on the body to get stung by a bee? One student has found the answer…