When a teddy bear bee once flew inside Sam Robinson’s house, he deliberately let it sting him.
“The kids had left the door open and this great big, big teddy bear bee had flown in one afternoon on a weekend,” he tells RN podcast What the Duck?!
“I ran downstairs, grabbed the net and caught it, stung myself, took a photo of it. And then 5 minutes later, it’s back out the door.”
The teddy bear bee (amegilla bombiformis) sting has a pain level of 2.5 out of 4, according to Dr. Robinson, who is a molecular biologist at the University of Queensland.
And this bee is not the only creature (or plant) that Dr Robinson has deliberately allowed to sting or bite him — all in the name of science.
Dr Robinson investigates plant and animal toxins in order to seek out potential biomedical applications, and part of that is understanding how they affect the body.
“I’m interested in what different animals and plants are using to defend themselves, and how those molecules work on the human body right down at the nitty gritty molecular level,” Dr Robinson says.
That’s because pain is complex, he adds. There are lots of different types of pain, but limited medications to treat them.
“So we need some alternatives. We are going to have to get creative. We can’t just keep making derivatives of the same old thing.”
To make new drugs that ease different types of pain, we need a foundational understanding of exactly what those drugs should target, Dr. Robinson says.
“I don’t know if a lot of people recognize it, but we’ve lived in the molecular biology era for the last 50 years and the doors are open to a huge amount of discovery in this field.”
‘It’s not just reckless’
Dr Robinson uses the “Schmidt pain scale” to describe pain from a sting or bite — it goes from 1 (least painful, calibrated to a honey-bee sting) to 4 (most painful).
And he does his homework before getting stung or bitten.
“It’s not just reckless. I do a lot of research beforehand and make sure that something’s not going to kill me.”
He’s not overly worried about the risks (note: we don’t recommend you try what he does).
“I’ve never really had a bad reaction to any sting. And have probably been stung hundreds, if not over a thousand times by different things.”
It’s all in the search for “interesting pain symptoms”.
“I try to focus my research on those interesting ones because I think they’re more likely to tell us something new about our own pain and physiology,” Dr. Robinson says.
So what are his most painful experiences? Here are the stings that earned podium spots.
Sam’s most painful stings
3rd place: stinging tree
The gympie gympie, or stinging tree (Dendrocnide moroides), gives Australia’s third-most painful sting, according to Dr Robinson, who rates it as a 3 on the Schmidt pain scale.
“I was out walking in one of the national parks and I spotted one of these trees.
“I’d heard all these rumors about what it was like and I thought, ‘you know, it can’t be [that bad]sure not.'”
So he went up and touched it.
“It’s like a visit to the dentist where the drill hits the nerve. It’s shooting… sort of stabbing, sharp pain,” Dr Robinson says.
“It’s bizarre that a plant is capable of that.
“Once it’s dissipated after several hours, if you put a piece of ice or even a cool breeze blowing over the site, it will bring the pain back. And that can last for weeks.”
This type of pain is called cold allodynia, and it’s a major side effect of some chemotherapy drugs, to the point that it causes some patients to discontinue treatment.
“There’s obviously a clear similarity between the sting symptoms there and the side effect of this drug,” Dr. Robinson says.
Investigating the molecule that’s causing the sting from the stinging tree may be able to illuminate what’s happening with the chemotherapy drugs.
“What we’ve done is identified a new protein in our nerves that’s actually probably involved in both and is probably a new pain target,” he says.
2nd place: red-headed centipede
Number two on Dr Robinson’s list of most painful stings in Australia is the red-headed centipede (Scolopendra morsitans), which registers a 3.5 on the scale.
“It feels like a tree growing out of your arm while it’s also spontaneously combustible,” he says.
1st place: spider-hunting wasp
Taking first place for the most painful sting is the spider-hunting wasp (Heterodontonyx bicolor), which comes in at the highest level — 4 — on the pain scale.
“It’s a very large wasp that… hunts the huntsman spiders.” Dr Robinson says.
The Aussie spider-hunting wasp is similar to the “monster” American tarantula hawk wasp, but there’s very little information on what happens when they sting.
So, Dr Robinson decided to find out, using really long tweezers to hold the large 34-millimeter wasp, drawing back several times before getting the wasp close enough to sting him.
“Your heart sort of races as you grab for the wasp to test that sting.
“That’s going to happen every time. But I guess the curiosity sort of overrides it.”
He describes the pain as “authoritative, gripping and shockingly powerful”.
“I’m still afraid of them,” Dr. Robinson says.
You can follow Sam Robinson @StingScience on Twitter.