Cornell University graduate student, PhD candidate & founder of the Cornell University Beekeeping Club, Michael L. Smith had a very painful experience.
A bee flew up his shorts and stung him on what is frequently considered (for men) the most sensitive spot on the human body “I was really surprised that it didn’t hurt as much as I thought it would,” he told National Geographic. But like all good scientists he is inquisitive and he wanted to know if it was possible to measure the pain from being stung on different parts of the body. So he designed an experiment.
He chose 25 sting locations on his body, from his skull down to the tip of his toe. Smith was surprised at the relatively low pain of a sting on his “unmentionables” so, he laid out a plan to test other body parts. Understanding the difficulty of enlisting subjects in this kind of research, he only ran trials on his own body. Smith was methodical. He collected bees by grabbing their wings “haphazardly with forceps” and pressing them against the body part of choice. He left the stinger there for a full minute before removing it, and then rated his pain on a scale of 1 to 10. Pain is very hard to measure, but psychological studies have found that numerical scales do a decent job of putting numbers on an inherently subjective experience. The reference standard of pain was a sting on his forearm which he rated as a 5.
Each day he assigned pain ratings for stings to other parts of his body, relative to his daily forearm sting. Each body part was stung three times, so that scores could be averaged. For the most part, there was very little variation in how much stings to a particular location hurt. The “Pain Map” he published with his research is shown above.
He kept this up for 38 days, stinging himself three times each on 25 different body parts. “Some locations required the use of a mirror and an erect posture during stinging (e.g., buttocks),” he wrote.
The side of the body that was stung did not change the amount of pain. And it turns out the most painful place to get stung is not the “unmentionables” at all….. the most painful place to be stung was the nostril, followed by the upper lip and only then the “unmentionables”! The least painful locations were the skull, middle toe tip, and upper arm.
Honeybees are actually an ideal creature to use when measuring the pain of an insect sting. They were used as the basic point of comparison in a separate study to develop the Schmidt Sting Pain Index, a project by entomologist Justin O. Schmidt that measures the intensity of the pain caused by 78 different insect stings. Stings are rated on that scale from 0-4, where a zero is a sting that cannot break skin, and a four is pain so intense that one of the few creatures whose sting rates that high is used in an Amazonian ritual that marks the transition from boyhood to manhood. The bullet ant, used in that ritual, causes hours of “pure, intense, brilliant pain,” strong enough to trigger hallucinations.
Honeybees, on the other hand, rate a much more manageable 2.
Michael L Smith’s study was published April 3, 2014 in the online academic journal “Peer”.