Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Oh, Sting, Where Is Thy Death?

Not long ago, I got stung by a yellow jacket, and after the usual ow-plus-obscenities moment, I found myself thinking about pain, happiness, and Justin O. Schmidt. He's an Arizona entomologist and co-author of the standard text in the insect sting field, "Insect Defenses: Adaptive Mechanisms and Strategies of Prey and Predators." But he's more widely celebrated as the creator of the "Justin O. Schmidt Sting Pain Index," a connoisseur's guide to just how bad the ouch is, on a scale of one ("a tiny spark") to four ("absolutely debilitating").

Among connoisseurs of insect stings, it's the equivalent of Robert Parker's wine ratings. Schmidt has been stung by about 150 different species on six continents and seems to have opinions about all of them. In faux-Parker mode, he once described a bald-faced hornet sting as "Rich, hearty, slightly crunchy. Similar to getting your hand mashed in a revolving door." Other researchers tend to regard his work with fascination. But hardly anyone tries to replicate his results.

You are perhaps thinking that this does not sound like it has much to do with happiness, especially not on a hot summer day with the insect world chattering and buzzing just outside the screen door. But Schmidt struck me as a happy guy when I first looked him up a few years ago at the home in Tucson he shares with a wife, two kids, and a large collection of venomous arthropods. I was researching my book "Swimming With Piranhas at Feeding Time," and he seemed like a good fit with my subtitle about "doing dumb stuff with animals." We sat down to talk at the kitchen table. The only condiment was a tube of Itch-X.

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