19 August 2009

More sting connoisseurship

Here's a nice little interview vignette with Justin Schmidt whose 'Justin O. Schmidt's 'Sting Pain Index' I've mentioned before.

On reflection, it is quite funny how much power a drop of venom gives a little tiny bug over us:

Oh, Sting, Where Is Thy Death? - Happy Days Blog - NYTimes.com: The pain index came into being, he said, because he wanted to understand the two ways stinging can be of defensive value to an insect. ‘One is that it can actually do serious damage, to kill the target or make it impaired. The other is the whammy, the pain.’ He could quantify the amount of venom injected and its toxicity, but he had no way to measure pain other than through direct experience. So the pain index gave him a tool for interpreting an insect’s overall defensive strategy.

In fact, most insect stings do no damage at all, except to the two percent of people who suffer an allergic reaction. They just scare the wits out of us. And this is why they fascinate Schmidt: We typically outweigh any insect tormentor by a million times or more. We can outthink it. ‘And yet it wins,’ said Schmidt, ‘and the evidence that it has won is that people flap their arms, run around screaming, and do all kinds of carrying on.’ It wins ‘by making us hurt far more than any animal that size ought to be able to do. It deceives us into thinking serious damage is being done.’ And that’s generally enough to deliver the insect’s message, which is: Stay away from me and my nest."

At least, its funny when a harvester ant whose sting “felt like somebody was putting a knife in and twisting it” makes the point. Less so, when it comes from sterner teachers
A wasp known in the American Southwest as the “tarantula hawk” made him lie down and scream: “The good news is that by three minutes, it’s gone. If you really use your imagination you can get it to last five.” On the other hand, the sting of a bullet ant in Brazil (4-plus on the pain index) had him “still quivering and screaming from these peristaltic waves of pain” twelve hours later, despite the effects of ice compresses and beer.