I’m Really Hoping That’s Not a Bullet Ant on Justin’s Nose
Posted by Richard Conniff on May 6, 2016
I wrote about Justin Schmidt and the “Justin Schmidt Sting Pain Index” in my “intensely pleasurable” book Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time: My Life Doing Dumb Stuff with Animals. Here’s the opening to that chapter:
One morning not long ago, an American entomologist named Justin Schmidt was making his way up the winding road to the Monteverde cloud forest in Costa Rica when he spotted Parachartergus fraternus, social wasps known both for the sculpted architecture of their hive and for the ferocity with which they defend it. This hive was ten feet up a tree, and the tree angled out from an eroded bank over a gorge. Schmidt, who specializes in the study of stinging insects, got out a plastic garbage bag and promptly shinnied up to bag the hive.
He had taken the precaution of putting on his beekeeper’s veil. Undeterred, the angry wasps charged at his face, scootched their hind ends under in midair, and,
from a range of four inches, squirted venom through the veil straight into his eyes. “So there I was ten feet up a tree, holding a bag of live wasps in one hand, basically blinded with pain.” Schmidt slid down the tree like Wile E. Coyote after a tête-à-tête with Road Runner.
Now Schmidt has come out with a book of his own, The Sting of the Wild, and Newsweek has featured him in an author interview. Here’s an excerpt:
What insect has the most painful sting?
Bullet ants. They are great big black ants that live in South America. They live in colonies [of] about 3,000 adults and are actually very secretive, taking pains not to lead predators back to their nest.
How did you first get stung by one?
It was down in Brazil, and I of course knew about them from very colorful reports of others through the years. They can cause absolute agony for days sometimes. Of course, hearing these reports, I thought, These are obviously something I’ve got to work on.
In Brazil, we happened upon them. My helpers were kind of standing back, and I was trying to collect them. I had half-gallon jars and rubbed talcum powder on the inside so they couldn’t climb out. One of my helpers hacked at the roots [near their nest] so I could collect more. But then they started boiling out. I was picking them up with a long forceps and putting them in jars, but one managed to get a piece of my index finger.
Man, that got my attention.
How much did it hurt?
It was immediate, excruciating pain—it felt like somebody had driven a branding iron into my finger. And when I held up my arm, it was trembling. I couldn’t make it still. The pain came on in these waves. And there’s a crescendo where you’re screaming. Then it would back off, and you can breathe.
But it’s disappointing in the sense that all this pain leaves almost no mark. It does create a hole in your skin because it’s a big stinger—but [not much] swelling, none of the usual markings. For me, the pain went on for about 12 hours, but I got it off quickly, before it could deliver a lot of venom. Somebody who doesn’t know could get hit much harder and be in pain for days.
The good news is that I don’t recall ever seeing a record of somebody dying from it.
So I am really hoping that Justin Schmidt has enough sense of self-preservation not to pose for a photograph with a bullet ant on his nose. But I am not counting on it.