If you can easily find a link between your real life and the fantasy world of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, then we have something in common. In my case, this happy collision concerns the Schmidt Sting Pain Index. This pain scale has been well known to social insect experts since the first paper mentioning it was published in 1983, but it has achieved wider recognition since its cameo in "Ant-Man."
When Scott Lang (Ant-Man) wakes up in Hank Pym’s house in a bed surrounded by huge ants, he is told, “Paraponera clavata. Giant tropical bullet ants. Ranked highest on the Schmidt Pain Index. They’re here to keep an eye on you when I can’t.”
This scale rates the relative pain of stings by insects in the order hymenoptera, which is the group that includes the social insects—ants, bees and my favorite, the wasps. (Wasps really are my favorite. The title of my doctoral dissertation was “Defensive Behavior of Tropical Social Wasps”.)
The pain index was created by Justin Schmidt, a scientist who sacrificed his own comfort and well being for science by being open to experiencing the stings of 83 species of hymenopterans. His descriptions of his experiences being stung call to mind oenophiles discussing the bouquet, the body or the finish of a wine.
The stings of two of the wasps I personally studied are described in Schmidt’s typical style. Polybia occidentalis (one on the pain index): “Sharp meets spice. A slender cactus spine brushed a Buffalo wing before it poked your arm.” Mischocyttarus (All 200 or so species in this genus are lumped together as a two on the pain index.) “Robust, a full-bodied wake-up call. Imagine a pair of pliers latched onto your upper lip.”
For the sake of comparison, fire ants are a one, yellow jackets and honey bees are each a two and harvester ants are a three. Only a few insects receive a four, which is the highest rating on the pain scale: bullet ants, tarantula hawks and warrior wasps. Here’s how Schmidt describes the latter’s sting: “Torture. You are chained in the flow of an active volcano. Why did I start this list?”
It may seem crazy to get stung for science, but stings are fascinating not just in spite of the pain but because of the pain. A profoundly intriguing aspect of stings is that they represent a rare deception in the biological world. Except in cases of individuals with serious allergies, the pain is out of proportion to the danger of actual harm or injury. Social insects exploit pain to protect themselves, their young and their stored food. They are able to deter potential predators who are a million times larger in size by stinging them. The recipients of their stings back off not because these insects have caused an injury that is painful, but simply because they have caused pain.
That pain is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing, and is surely a stinging commentary on the gap between perception and reality.