Within minutes of our first meeting, and more or less in response to my saying good morning, Justin Schmidt began lamenting our culture's lack of insect-based rites of passage. He told me about the Sateré-Mawé people in northwestern Brazil, who hold a ceremony in which young men slip their hands into large mitts filled with bullet ants, whose stings are so agonizing they can cause temporary paralysis; when initiates pass the test, they're one step closer to becoming full members of society.
Schmidt believes we could learn something from this. By trade, he is an entomologist, an expert on the Hymenoptera order — wasps, bees and ants — but his interest in this insect ritual was not merely academic. He has two teenage boys, and, on this particular morning at least, I found him wondering whether they might benefit from a pain ritual to help introduce them to adulthood.
"I mean, it wouldn't kill them," Schmidt said. "And I think that may be the key to the whole thing: It can't kill you and yet something very real is happening."
It was a bit before 7:30 on a windy weekday morning in Tucson, and Schmidt had just dropped off his 14-year-old at school. At 69, Schmidt has a head of red hair that stubbornly refuses to go gray and a boyish face that glints of mischief. We were driving in his 1999 Toyota Corolla down a road that may have been a desert highway or a city thoroughfare: My East Coast eyes couldn't tell the difference. We pulled up to a traffic light, next to a giant saguaro cactus whose short, upturned arm gave it the look of a crossing guard gesturing us to stop.
Schmidt's new book, "The Sting of the Wild: The Story of the Man Who Got Stung for Science," weaves his theories about stinging insects through a narrative of his personal experiences digging in the dirt. For many readers, the highlight of the book will be the appendix, his celebrated Pain Scale for Stinging Insects, which rates the pain level of dozens of insect stings, an index he created mostly by firsthand experience, either by suffering stings incidentally during field research or, in some cases, by inducing them.
Because stings of the same magnitude don't necessarily feel the same, Schmidt has written haiku-like descriptions for each of the 83 sting entries:
Anthophorid bee, Pain Level 1, "Almost pleasant, a lover just bit your earlobe a little too hard."
Maricopa harvester ant, Level 3, "After eight unrelenting hours of drilling into that ingrown toenail, you find the drill wedged into the toe."
Termite-raiding ant, Level 2, "The debilitating pain of a migraine contained in the tip of your finger."
Club-horned wasp, Level 0.5, "Disappointing. A paper clip falls on your bare foot."