Stinging Science

I wrote about this fellow last year. He likes to get stung for science. Below, I’ve repeated my blog, The Worst Place to Get Stung, from September, 2014. The big news is that the research scientist – intent on finding the worst body part to collect a stinger – has just been awarded some sort of Nobel Prize.

It’s an Ig Nobel Prize, given to Michael L. Smith of Cornell University at a fancy-pants gala. His experiment is described below. The Ig Nobel is a playful concept – an award for real science that recognizes humorous experimentation. It’s hard to think of bee stings as a form of humor, unless one gets walloped by a bee on the funny bone, of course.  Smith describes the nostril sting as “so painful it’s like a whole body experience.” He’s right about that.

Where is the worst place to get stung? The correct answer is not “on the picnic table.” According to Cornell University graduate research scientist Michael L. Smith, in a study funded by the United States National Science Foundation, the worst place to take a sting is either the nostril or the upper lip. He places both within the same range of scientific error, though he admits that the nose sting was tearful. Smith’s neurobiology paper, Honey bee sting pain index by body location, does not miss a single body part.

The folks at Dadaviz, a cool website that makes charts and graphs out of all sorts of weird data, sent me their data visualization for Smith’s bee sting pain study. I reproduced their chart above, and you can see all the detail clearly by either clicking on the chart, or clicking here and going straight to the data at (Once you arrive there, you can click on the data visualization and it will expand to fill your screen.) I encourage you to take a close look, then come back here and I’ll tell you how these data were collected.

I had imagined that a team of white-jacketed doctors at Cornell experimented on hundreds of volunteer grad students, inflicting each with an exquisite sting. Turns out, it was not done that way. If you read the original research paper, you will learn that Mr. Smith self-inflicted 75 honey bee stings to gather the data. He stung himself (well, actually, he let bees sting him) five times daily between 9 and 10 o’clock each morning. Each location was stung 3 separate times, on different days. The researcher then rated the painfulness of each location’s sting. It seems the softer body parts (his nose, lips, and, yes, genitals) hurt the most following a sting. The nose stings, reported Smith, “were especially violent, immediately inducing sneezing, tears and a copious flow of mucus.” Not surprisingly, the least painful spot to take a sting was on the skull. We are hard-headed for a reason.

I know you are wondering where the thesis advisor was during all of this. That leads to one of the many interesting parts of this research paper. Smith wrote, “Cornell University’s Human Research Protection Program does not have a policy regarding researcher self-experimentation, so this research was not subject to review from their offices. The methods do not conflict with the Helsinki Declaration of 1975, revised in 1983. The author was the only person stung, was aware of all associated risks therein, gave his consent, and is aware that these results will be made public.”

In my last blog post, I wrote about Beetox. What about Bee-agra? Alas, Smith reported only the pain levels, not the amount of swelling. No photographs were available in the research paper.



About Ron Miksha

Ron Miksha is a bee ecologist working at the University of Calgary. He is also a geophysicist and does a bit of science writing and blogging. Ron has worked as a radio broadcaster, a beekeeper, and Earth scientist. (Ask him about seismic waves.) He's based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
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