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Insects sting mainly as a form of self-defense, so it’s meant to hurt to deter potential threats and predators from harming the insect. But while most of us run in the opposite direction when confronted by an insect that’s about to sting, one guy by the name of Justin O. Schmidt, has other ideas.
He was so fascinated by insect bites and stings that he put himself in the firing line in order to develop an insect bite pain scale.
In this guide, we’ll go over some of the world’s most painful insect bites and stings according to Mr. Schmidt himself.
Insects Bites & Insect Stings – Main Differences
Some insects bite while others sting, and while they can both be painful, there is a difference between the two.
When an insect bites, like a flea, midge, or tick, it will use its mouthparts to cause a minor wound to the skin. Some have mouthparts that pierce the skin, while others cause a laceration from which they will lap up blood. In any case, bites are typically painless when they happen and humans don’t normally notice them until later on when they may itch or become red and swollen.
That said, it is possible for complications to arise in some cases, such as headaches or fever when sustaining a mosquito bite. Moreover, some people may have an infection in the bite wound, which can cause pus, extreme swelling, and more severe pain. However, most bites will result only in localized irritation, with water blisters being the worst outcome.
Other insects deliver a sting as a form of defense, and in this case, the creature will inject venom using its stinger. You’ll normally notice a sting as soon as it happens as they’re typically much more painful than a bite. Insects that sting include various species of bees and wasps as well as hornets.
Stings cause similar symptoms to bites but are a little more extreme and can include redness, pain, swelling, and itching. If you are stung by certain types of insects, like the honey bee, they will leave their stinger behind, and you’ll need to remove this.
Since insect venom contains allergens, some people are sensitive and may react to this. In some individuals, the reaction will be mild but for others, it is possible that the allergic reaction may be life-threatening. If you experience dizziness, are unable to breathe, or go into shock after being stung, you should seek emergency medical care.
What is the Schmidt Sting Pain Index?
It’s hard to believe that anyone would volunteer themselves to be repeatedly stung by insects. However, Justin O. Schmidt has done just that. Over the course of his career, he has put himself at the mercy of more than 150 different species just to see what their bites and stings feel like.
But he isn’t just doing this for fun. Mr. Schmidt has taken one (or several) for the team in order to develop a pain scale, aptly named the Schmidt Sting Pain Index. This scale consists of four levels of pain to describe how intense an insect bite or sting feels.
- 0 – The stinger doesn’t pierce the skin, and the sting is not felt
- 1 – The sting feels like a sharp prick, and pain is felt for no longer than five minutes
- 2 – Typically the feel of a honey bee sting and the benchmark for the rest of the scale. The sting feels painful but manageable; maybe that of a migraine within the fingertip. Pain generally doesn’t last for more than ten minutes.
- 3 – Level three is where things are ramped up, with pain being significantly more intense and last as long as eight to ten hours.
- 4 – The most extreme pain rating includes insects like the tarantula hawk and bullet ant. However, while all bites and stings within this category are immensely painful, the duration can differ. Some may only be painful for five minutes, while others can hurt for days.
Powerful Insect Stings & Bites
Pain is relative, and some people are able to manage intense pain better than others. But according to the Schmidt scale, the insects below have some of the most powerful bites and stings in the world. Probably best to give them a wide berth if you meet them.
15. Sweat Bees (Halictus spp.) – 1.0
Sweat bees are found all over the world from the US to the UK, Central America, New Zealand, and many other locations. They’re a common site in the garden and are important pollinators.
These are ground-nesting bees and, as you may guess from their name, they’re actually attracted to human sweat. It’s the females that you want to watch out for because when they sting, they’ll keep releasing venom until you pull out the barb.
In terms of pain, Schmidt describes these bee stings as feeling like ‘a single hair on your arm has been singed‘. The initial sensation may last just ten minutes but for some people, the pain may go on for an hour. Typically, any associated redness or swelling should subside in around 48 hours.
14. Fire Ants (Solenopsis spp.) – 1.2
Fire ants have earned themselves quite a reputation when it comes to bite pain, yet surprisingly, they’re not very high up on the Schmidt pain index. The thing with fire ants is that the pain from a single bite may be a lot easier to handle than if you’re bitten by several ants at once, which is often the case.
These small ants can grow up to around 0.24 inches (6 mm) and are found natively in South America, however, they have made their way up to North America and are now a common pest.
Schmidt described the pain of a fire ant bite to be ‘Sharp, sudden, mildly alarming. Like walking across a shag carpet & reaching for the light switch’.
The pain from these bites only lasts for around five minutes and contains a type of venom known as solenopsin. They’re very aggressive, and when bitten, you may experience mild skin irritation. However, where the venom is particularly potent, it can affect the nervous system and cause more severe symptoms such as hallucinations.
13. Suturing Army Ant (Eciton burchellii) – 1.5
According to the Schmidt index, the pain from a suturing army ant bite feels like a ‘cut on the elbow, stitched with a rusty needle’. Yet while that isn’t the most pleasant sensation, these ants are used in traditional medicine to suture wounds, hence their name.
Practitioners will force the ant to bite, which it does from either side of the mouth, gripping on. The body is removed while the head is left in place, sealing the wound together. When bitten, you’ll experience pain for around five minutes.
There are more than 200 species of army ant, and the suturing army ant is found in Eastern Africa. They are migratory ants that are known for their aggression. In a single day, one colony can eat up to 500,000 prey animals.
12. Bullhorn Acacia Ant (Pseudomyrmex nigrocinctus) – 1.5
The bullhorn acacia ant, as you can tell from its name, has a symbiotic relationship with the bullhorn acacia tree. They’re found across Central America and are a small species that doesn’t typically get much bigger than 0.12 inches (3 mm).
However, despite being small, Schmidt says that their sting creates ‘A rare, piercing, elevated sort of pain. Someone has fired a staple into your cheek’. However, the pain doesn’t generally last for more than five minutes.
But while they may be painful, ancient Mayans used to use the ants as a treatment for depression, forcing them to bite the patient in the crook of the elbow. They’re also crushed up and used to treat asthma.
11. Bald-Faced Hornet (Dolichovespula maculata) – 2.0
The bald-faced hornet is common across North America and is known for building paper nests that can be as big as 23 inches (58 cm)! While it may be called a hornet, this is actually a species of yellowjacket wasp and while they’re a pest to humans and quite aggressive, they’re considered useful as they prey on things like caterpillars, flies, and spiders, therefore controlling populations.
The sting from a bald-faced hornet feels, according to Schmidt, ‘rich, hearty, slightly crunchy. Similar to getting your hand mashed in a revolving door’. However, while that may sound extreme, the pain doesn’t go on for much longer than four minutes.
They’ll sting to protect their nest and also have the ability to spray venom into a potential predator’s eyes. When bitten, you’ll usually have localized pain, redness, and swelling, which should subside in a few days, but in some instances, healing can take up to a week.
10. Yellowjackets (Vespula & Dolichovespula spp.) – 2.0
Yellowjackets are incredibly common across North America but are also found in Europe, South America and Australia. They have very bright and distinct markings and are known for their aggressive temperament. However, much like the bald-faced hornet, they’re important in the control of pest insects.
The yellowjacket can and will sting, but the pain will normally only last for around ten minutes. The symptoms are pretty standard, with redness and swelling, but in some cases, victims may have an allergic reaction which can include symptoms like difficulty breathing and swelling of the mouth or tongue.
Schmidt’s description of a yellowjacket sting was ‘hot and smoky, almost irreverent. Imagine W. C. Fields extinguishing a cigar on your tongue’.
9. Western Honey Bee (Apis mellifera) – 2.0
The pain from a western honey bee sting can last for as long as ten minutes, and Schmidt describes it as ‘a match head that flips off and burns on your skin’. Symptoms may include some pain and swelling in the area unless you have an allergic reaction, in which case, the sting can be fatal if not treated. Don’t forget that the bee will leave its barb in your skin, and this will continue delivering venom until you remove it.
Honey bees are not usually aggressive and will only sting when they are provoked. They’re one of the most important pollinators, pollinating up to 80% of human crops.
There are up to 12 species of honey bee and the western honey bee is found in every corner of the world aside from Antarctica.
8. Termite-Raiding Ant (Megaponera analis) – 2.0
Termite-raiding ants may deliver a bite that Schmidt puts halfway up his index and that can cause pain and swelling, these are actually pretty loving creatures. At least within their colonies. Researchers have noticed a rather caring behavior from these ants whereby they will lick the wounds of their fellow ants in order to heal them.
This behavior was noticed in their native Sub-Saharan Africa and was shown to reduce the death rates of ants by up to 70%.
Schmidt, after being stung by a termite-raiding ant noted that it felt like ‘a debilitating migraine contained within the tip of your finger‘.
7. Red Paper Wasp (Polistes canadensis) – 3.0
If you’re stung by a red paper wasp then you can expect to be in pain for around ten minutes but the pain is pretty intense. According to Schmidt, a sting from one of these critters feels ‘distinctly bitter aftertaste. Like spilling a beaker of hydrochloric acid on a paper cut‘.
Featuring higher up on the scale, the bite from a red paper wasp can leave you with a burning sensation. It’s important to watch out for them as they’re pretty common in gardens during the summer and will often nest around porches and other similar structures.
These wasps are found across both North and South America but aren’t aggressive unless they feel threatened. In most cases, you’ll experience mild symptoms unless you have an allergic reaction.
6. Giant Bull Ant (Myrmecia gulosa) – 3.0
The giant bull ant is found in the eastern parts of Australia, and it’s a very common species that is found in all open areas where they’ll build their mounds.
These ants can deliver a painful bite, but the sensation lasts barely any time at all. After the initial bite, you may notice residual pain and swelling but using an ice pack is normally enough to treat this unless there is an allergic reaction, in which case, you should seek immediate medical assistance.
The giant bull ant has been found to have adapted its venom to be more painful to mammals. This works pretty well in their battle with animals like the echidna, which will regularly dig up the ants’ nests to prey on them.
5. Maricopa Harvester Ant (Pogonomyrmex maricopa) – 3.0
Schmidt talks about the harvester ant bite feeling ‘Bold and unrelenting. Somebody is using a drill to excavate your ingrown toenail’. What’s more, once bitten, the pain could continue searing for as long as four hours! One of the longest durations on this list.
Bites are incredibly strong, and it would take just 12 to kill a 4.4 lbs. (2-kilo) rat. The venom of these ants is 35 times more potent than that of the western diamondback rattlesnake! What’s more, it has the most potent venom of all insects, which is 30 times stronger than the honeybee.
In humans, pain is the most notable symptom, and if you’re stung, you’d better move fast as these ants send out chemical signals to alert the rest of the nest, who will soon follow.
These ants are found in Mexico but are also common in some of the southern United States, such as Arizona, southern California, Texas, Utah, Nevada, and New Mexico.
4. Velvet Ant (Dasymutilla klugii) – 3.0
If you’re unfortunate enough to be bitten by a velvet ant, then you’d better buckle up for at least 30 minutes, as that’s how long the pain will last. But interestingly, these aren’t ants at all; they’re wasps!
The females are wingless, looking like ants, and have a fuzzy appearance, hence the name velvet ant. They’re found all over the world, with more than 400 species native to North America.
These are incredibly robust little critters with a super hard exoskeleton that makes squishing them impossible. What’s more, their stinger, that’s almost the same size as their abdomen, delivers pain so intense that it’s said to be able to kill a cow!
3. Warrior Wasp (Synoeca septentrionalis) – 4.0
The warrior wasp is said to have the most painful sting of all paper wasps in the world, and Schmidt describes it as ‘Caustic & burning. Distinctly bitter aftertaste. Like spilling a beaker of hydrochloric acid on a paper cut’. Once delivered, you will experience intense pain, and these bites are often accompanied by swelling that will require treatment.
However, since these wasps live in very remote areas of South America and nest high in trees, it’s not often that humans encounter them. So, stings are very rare.
2. Tarantula Hawks (Pepsis spp.) – 4.0
It’s widely agreed that the tarantula hawk is the most painful sting in the world, but for Schmidt, it comes a close second. The good news is that the pain typically dissipates within about five minutes.
Despite its name, this creature is neither a spider nor a bird but a type of wasp that lays its eggs inside tarantulas. One of the reasons that their venom is so potent is to be able to take down these large spiders that would otherwise overpower the wasp.
These wasps are found all over the world, notably in India, Africa, and the Americas, with sightings in Utah to the north.
1. Bullet Ant (Paraponera clavata) – 4.0+
The bullet ant is widely feared all over the world and for good reason. It has the most painful bite known to man. However, there’s really no need to worry about being stung by one of these critters unless you’re traveling to rural parts of Central or South America where they live.
These ants can deliver a bite that’ll leave you reeling in pain for as long as 12 hours, and even Schmidt, the master of pain, described it as ‘pure, intense, brilliant pain. Like walking over flaming charcoal with a 3-inch rusty nail in your heel’.
In Brazilian tribes, however, teenage boys are subjected to bullet ant bites as a rite of passage. Fortunately, there’s very little chance of lasting damage but getting through the excruciating pain certainly shows that they’ve become a man!
Do Bees Die After They Sting?
Most species of bee are non-aggressive, most notably, the honeybee. One of the main reasons for this is that they’ll save their sting for when they really need it. Because, once they’ve stung, it’s game over for our winged friends.
Honeybees will sting when they feel threatened and when they do, they insert a barbed sting into their victim. This sting delivers venom, but as the bee pulls away, it detaches from its body, leaving what is essentially a huge open wound.
Just like you or I, a wound like this from losing a body part is fatal, and the bee dies a very traumatic death.