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This scientist rates and describes insect stings as if they were fine wines

The bullet ant pushes the limit of Schmidt's pain index. (REUTERS/Juan Carlos Ulate)
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"Light, ephemeral, almost fruity," isn't the description of a nice champagne -- it's a bee sting. That tantalizing description comes from entomologist Justin Schmidt's pain index, which is surely one of the most delightfully absurd scientific endeavors in the bug world.

The pain index was first published in the 1980s and revised in the '90s, but the BBC reports that Schmidt is working on an updated version with new species. Contrary to popular belief, Schmidt didn't set out to get stung by everything capable of stinging him. But as an entomologist studying the baddest bugs out there, it just sort of happened. He's been stung by over 150 insects, mostly by accident.

Here's a sampling of the current pain index (which includes 78 species that have taken a shot at Schmidt) in all its quirky, oddly specific glory:

  • Sweat bee, 1.0, short pain

"Light, ephemeral, almost fruity. As if a tiny spark has singed a single hair on your arm."

That kind of makes you want to get stung by a bee, right?

  • Fire ant, 1.2, 2-5 minutes of pain

"Sharp, sudden, mildly alarming. Like walking across a shag carpet & reaching for the light switch."

  • Bullhorn Acacia Ant, 1.8, 4-6 minutes of pain

"A rare, piercing, elevated sort of pain. Someone has fired a staple into your cheek."

Oh. Okay, then.

  • Bald faced hornet, 2.0, 3-4 minutes of pain

"Rich, hearty, slightly crunchy. Similar to getting your hand mashed in a revolving door."

  • Yellowjacket, 2.0, 4-10 minutes of pain

"Hot and smoky, almost irreverent. Imagine W. C. Fields extinguishing a cigar on your tongue."

I don't understand how pain can be irreverent, but I dig the poetry.

  • Honey bee, 2.0, 4-10 minutes of pain

"Like a matchhead that flips off and burns on your skin."

  • Red harvester ant, 3.0, 1-8 hours of pain

"Bold and unrelenting. Somebody is using a drill to excavate your ingrown toenail."
Well that escalated quickly.

  • Paper wasp, 3.0, 5-15 minutes of pain

"Caustic & burning. Distinctly bitter aftertaste. Like spilling a beaker of hydrochloric acid on a paper cut."

  • Tarantula hawk, 4.0, 3 minutes of pain

"Blinding, fierce, shockingly electric. A running hair drier has been dropped into your bubble bath."

I would like to not feel that feeling, please.

  • Bullet ant, 4.0+, 12-24 hours of pain

"Pure, intense, brilliant pain. Like fire-walking over flaming charcoal with a 3-inch rusty nail in your heel."

Death to all bullet ants.

These are subjective ratings based on Schmidt's personal experience, so your results may vary. And the oddly specific numerical values are the result of a journalist who pestered Schmidt for more nuanced values than one through four, so you should just take those for the whimsy that they are.

Schmidt is into the pain of stings because he thinks it's an incredible evolutionary success. It doesn't matter which insect is the most deadly -- just which sting hurts the most.

"How does the insect win?" Schmidt asked during a 2003 interview with Discover Magazine. "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 harmless little insects like the common hornet do just that. "And the evidence that it has won is that people flap their arms, run around screaming, and do all kinds of carrying on," he said.

But Schmidt has obviously learned to see past the pain, because he keeps going back to study more insects.

"I don’t consider myself all that tough," he told the BBC. "Crazy? Well that’s in the eye of the beholder. You probably can make an argument that I am crazy, but I enjoy what I do."