Book review | The Sting of the Wild

The Sting of the Wild: The Story of the Man Who Got Stung for Science by Justin O. Schmidt. Johns Hopkins University Press, Maryland. Copyright © 2016 by Johns Hopkins University Press. This review refers to the hardcover edition.

I got a nasty sting yesterday. In the first 15 seconds, I exhausted every cuss word I know. Then I began to worry about how I would type without using the letters C, D, or E. E is a killer.

Of course, I was being stupid. I should have remembered that a yellowjacket in a net is not a contented creature. I had been scooping up yellowjackets that were bugging my hives, and each time I caught one I held the net up to the light to make sure that my victim was not a bee. The last time, when I grabbed the fabric without looking, I became the victim.

I’m with Aristotle on this one. He believed that wasp stings are worse than honey bee stings. After yesterday, I’m convinced he was right. In comparison, I hardly notice a honey bee sting, especially on a finger. But the pain from this yellowjacket lingered all afternoon without leaving the slightest mark or red spot.

The world authority on insect stings

When it comes to stings and how they feel, the world authority is Justin O. Schmidt. As many of you know, Schmidt is the entomologist who allowed himself to be stung by a vast array of insects in order to categorize the relative effects of their stings on human beings. From these experiences he developed the “Pain Scale for Stinging Insects,” divided into three parts: ants, bees, and wasps.

When I consulted these charts after getting stung, I found that he rates the pain level of both the honey bee and the western yellowjacket at 2. That’s when I took sides with Aristotle.

Now the book

In spite of this slight disagreement, I love Schmidt’s new book, The Sting of the Wild: The Story of the Man Who Got Stung for Science. The book is fun to read and I’m learning more about stings than I ever thought possible.

Entomologists are some of the funniest people I know, and books by entomologists nearly always make me laugh. They know they are strange, but instead of fighting it, they embrace it. Schmidt is no exception as he shares vivid accounts of his encounters with armed insects from all over the world.

But as amusing as it is, the book is serious science. Part autobiography and part biology, the book covers the why, how, and when of insect stings as well as tidbits about behavior and lifestyle of all the insects he covers.

The last chapter, “Honey Bees and Humans,” explains our love/fear association with honey bees. In this chapter I learned that the main component of honey bee venom is called melittin, a substance composed of 26 amino acids that is found nowhere else in nature. Melittin destroys red blood cells, causes pain, and is toxic to the heart muscle. And that’s just one component; the list of ingredients and how they affect the human body is downright scary, but fascinating too.

A perfect late-summer read

So if you are looking for something to read while wasps and hornets are circling your picnic table, and ants are marching in unbroken lines up the legs of your hive stands, this is the perfect entertainment. And after you get through the science, you can enjoy Schmidt’s wonderful descriptions in the Pain Scale. “Apis mellifera: Burning, corrosive, but you can handle it. A flaming match head lands on your arm and is quenched first with lye and then sulfuric acid.” You get the idea.

The Sting of the Wild by Justin O. Schmidt is available on Amazon in both hardcover and Kindle formats.

Honey Bee Suite

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  • This last week has been a most difficult week for me with insects. Last weekend I was out on the boat and the green head flies were having me for dinner. I counted over a dozen bites that Saturday afternoon.

    To make matters worse my three year old bee suit is either getting thin or the bees stinger is getting longer. I received 12 stings, 6 in both arms that went through my suit while checking the hives. I am feeling the bite/sting pain, some local swelling, but more important after reading the passage, I know why I am listless and drained of energy.

    The venom as I remember reading is an anti-inflammatory and good thing. After reading, destroying red blood cells and toxic to the ticker, I will be more far more careful and change out my suit. Maybe after several washings the suit loses some of it anti piercing protection.

    As far as insects bites, I have met many, the hornet was my worst, like hammering a nail in my neck. Thanks for posting the passage and a good read over winter.

  • I suppose we all react differently. When I’m careless and get nailed, I find it doesn’t hurt that much, but I sure do swell up! I’m not allergic and don’t go into anaphylaxis, but I keep Epi-pens handy just in case a visitor does. Now I hear that the price has jumped to $600. These are supposed to be replaced every year, so I’m not sure if I can afford to keep this life saving device current for what is really a remote possibility.

  • The last few stings I’ve gotten seem to be more potent and lots more painful than earlier in the year. I’m wondering if there’s a seasonal variation in bee venom. I don’t usually get reactions but these last few caused swelling, and itching that lasted a few days. I also got a few nose and ear stings because the hood on my new bee jacket isn’t as easy to get over my head as earlier models. The nose ones stop me and I have to say bad things while I bob up and down to deal with the pain.

    • Bill,

      In the book, Justin Schmidt has a special classification for Apis mellifera tongue stings. He says, “For ten minutes life is not worth living.” Apparently it happens when bees visit the inside of your soda can and you drink them unaware. Sounds horrible. Maybe nose stings are similar.

  • I’m allergic to honey bee stings and have to get monthly allergy shots for it. I have an elderly friend who said to take the leaves of 3 different plants and crush them together and put that on a sting or insect bite to take the pain away. I haven’t been stung recently to have an opportunity to try it. Have you ever heard of this?

  • An old remedy that works is old fashion laundry bluing. Used to whiten clothes it is sold in most grocery stores. It will deaden the pain almost instantly. I know because I have used it many times and keep a bottle handy. Just dampen a cloth with the bluing and put it on the sting and it will go away. You may have to repeat the application but you don’t mind because it takes the pain away.

  • There are generic epinephrine injector pens at a fraction of the cost. I strongly advise sending a message to Mylan and buy competitor products. A lot in the news recently about their pricing practices, so we may see some changes.

    • Mark,

      That’s good to know. It seemed like there ought to be a competitor. Epinephrine has been around a long time, so I think it was just the injector that was special.

      • The cost for the generic autoinjector (Adrenaclick) is still in the hundreds and many insurance companies will not cover generic. The pharmacy at the corner of happy & healthy wanted to charge me $730 for Epi-Pen. Of the three pharmacies I called, they were by far the worst. Mylan is saying they’re making changes, by it remains to be seen how affordable Epi-Pens will be in the future. For example, they say they will raise their manufacturer coupon to $300 but I suspect (for me) it will have the same value as their current $100 coupon. $0. The way the current coupon works is this. They will cover up to $100 of your co-pay. If your insurance plan doesn’t have a co-pay, there’s nothing for them to cover. No co-pay = no savings.

        Two days ago, I asked my allergist about a non AUTO-injector. Could he prescribe epinephrine that I’d have to be educated on using syringes to use? His reply was, “I don’t think that would hold up in court.” It’s a sorry state we are in.

        • Holly,

          Well that’s pretty sad. He’s more worried about court than your life? The whole medical profession has become CYA no matter what. Maybe you could sue him for not prescribing affordable medication.

  • Myrna- I have read that the weed known as dock is good for bee stings. Crush up a few leaves and apply them to the sting.

    Bill- I have a ‘sheriff’ hood on my bee suit and I find the hood falls onto my face. The suggestion was to wear a baseball cap under the hood as the long brim of the cap keeps the hood from falling onto your face. It works.


  • I read an article about him in the New York Times on Sunday-book just came in from the library-I am so excited!

  • Hey great article. A couple of thoughts; how you feel about apitherapy? Apparently it really helps people with lymes disease. I’m wondering how it effects their heart health…

    Also, the plant(s) that were mentioned in a comment above… The plantain (no relation to the banana) is a weed that grows pretty much everywhere (at least in North America) is one of those plants.

    If you pull the leaves off the plant and chew them up and stick that poultice on the sting (right away) it takes the burn away instantly. At least the one time I tried it that’s how it worked. I’ve been stung 3 times and the last time was the time I tried this plantain thing. It worked like a charm. It didn’t take the entire thing away but if the first 2 stings were 9s on a scale from 1 to 10, the 3rd one was a 3. And the ensuing inching only lasted a day where as the first 2 sings gave my inching for 3 days.

    I’m sure I looked deranged running around my yard searching for that plant, found it, dropped to my knees yanked 3 or 4 leaves off stuck them in my mouth chewed them quickly and took that ball out and slapped it on my bee sting, and then immediate relief . Whew!

    • Diana,

      Your description (last paragraph) made me laugh. Sounds like some absurd thing I might do. I will try it.

  • The three plants my Memaw made for us as kids are mint, lemongrass and basil. Chew equal amounts to make a poultice and tape on the sting. Duct tape wasn’t around in those days so we had Papa’s electrical tape but I use it all the time. It takes the sting away. It works for honeybees, wasps, and yellowjackets. I have not had the honor of trying it out on bald-faced hornets and hope I never do.

  • In 1962, I was in a Biology class at Auburn University, taught by Professor Dr. Faye Guyton. He made the class a wonderful experience, as he took people with arthritis and treated them with honey bee stings. Sounds horrible, but he was able to get some patients up to 15 stings at one time. He never published any of his experiences and never received any credit for historical data. He did it as fun. Years later, one of his grad students recognized his lack of publications and took the credit. Can you just imagine subjecting yourself to that many honey bee stings. Back then, his patients, for the loss of a better word, said it was a successful treatment.

  • There are currently no generics for EpiPens on the US market. That has allowed Mylan to jack the price 600% over the last five years. There is a black market to import from Canada at a fraction of the price.

    Meanwhile parents with children suffering from nut allergies have to choose between shelling out this outrageous price or putting their kids at risk when they go back to school.

    We bee keepers must make the same choice.

    I suggest interested parties contact their Congress Reps to voice their concern. It can make a difference as political pressure has started to build on this issue.

        • From my experience, which goes back to 2013 when I found out I’m allergic to bee stings, if a pharmacy tries to fill a prescription for Epi-Pen with generic, they try with Adrenaclick. While Epi-Pen is typically in stock, Adrenaclick is not, and none of my insurances over the last 4 years have covered it. They will only cover Epi-Pen but with my particular plans (the best I can afford), the prescription is not covered. Adrenaclick has offered a $0 co-pay coupon like Mylan, so look for it. Also, Mylan does provide free Epi-Pens to schools. You might just need to ask them to include yours in their program.

          • Holly,

            I’m sure state laws are different, but here (if I’m understanding this all correctly) your prescription has to say Adrenaclick or else the insurance won’t cover it. But if the prescription written by the doctor specifically says Adrenaclick most insurances will cover it. I was told that the reason is that using Adrenaclick is a two-step process, whereas Epi-Pen is a one stop process. In other words, the delivery mechanism is different. Because of the difference, Adrenaclick is not considered a generic but a different product, even though the medicine inside is the same.

            I will know more about the Washington system soon because my husband is going to try to get his prescription changed. We’ll see how that goes.

  • Two things come to mind:

    Since different people have different body chemistry and different insects have different venom, then I suspect that different people will have different pain levels from a given sting.

    And tobacco products work on stings, by sort of sucking the venom out. I keep a can of snuff around for this purpose. I think the snuff works a bit better because it’s finely ground, so it has more surface area. It’s not a miracle cure but it helps a bit.

  • Great post. I’m with you. Bee stings are hardly troublesome, but the wasps! I had a nasty sting on a knuckle and for 3 days it felt like the venom was re-activated whenever I moved my finger. I”ll definitely add the book to my must read list!

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