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H4A1000A

Ferrebeekeeper, like its author is meant to be benevolent and philosophical.  Yet sometimes, despite our best intentions, we all must grapple with the unthinkable–this is why, today, we descend into a realm of unimaginable pain.  Allow me to present the dreadful bullet ant (Paraponera clavata) also known as the 24-hour ant–the hymenopteran that sits at the apex of the Schmidt Sting Pain Index.  The worker ants of this genus are 18–30 mm (0.7 to 1.2 inches) long; there are no soldiers or other castes (and the queen herself is not much larger than any of the workers).  They live in nests just underground and they hunt for small arthropods (and nectar) in the trees above.

Paraponera clavata worker, Misahuallí, Ecuador

Paraponera clavata worker, Misahuallí, Ecuador

The common name of the ant comes from the 24 hour agony caused by the creature’s excruciating sting.  Victims of the ant claim that being stung feels the same as being shot (and since the ant ranges from Nicaragua and eastern Honduras south to Paraguay, it seems likely that some of the people it has stung have sufficient personal experience to intelligently make the comparison).  The ant’s venom is poneratoxin–a short chain of amino acids held together by covalent bonds–which acts as a neurotoxin.  Poneratoxin affects voltage-dependent sodium ion channels which therefor disrupts synaptic transmission within the central nervous system.  That sounds clinical and antiseptic, but people stung by the ant describe hours upon hour of unrelenting abject agony (along with partial paralysis and general flailing in the afflicted part).

Paraponera clavata (the coin is for scale--they are not grubbing for money)

Paraponera clavata (the coin is for scale–they are not grubbing for money)

The ants have developed this potent sting as a means to deter animals which might unearth and disturb their underground nests (or otherwise harass them as they hunt and gather food).  Unfortunately, the ants never reckoned on the madness of humans.   The Satere-Mawe people of Brazil, an Amazonian tribe of hunter gatherers utilize the ants as part of their manhood initiation ritual.  Shamans lull a hive of ants into paralysis with smoke and then sew the living ants (stinger end out) into a sort of grass mitten.  Thirteen-year-old boys take turns putting on the mitten for five to ten minutes.  Then the initiates face 24 hours of partial paralysis as well as pain so intense that it causes hallucinations and madness (and some boys die from the ceremony).  In order to be respected as a stoic and fearless warrior a young Satere-Mawe man might undergo this ritual a score of times.

Prepare to reassess just how bad 8th grade actually was...

Prepare to reassess just how bad 8th grade actually was…

schmidt

Justin Orvel Schmidt (pictured above) is an entomologist who specializes in insect defenses.  His greatest expertise is in the stings of hymenopterans—the bees, wasps, sawflies, hornets, and ants (although he also researches the toxic/chemical defences of other arthropods).   In the early 1980’s Schmidt attempted to systematize the different medical and physiological effects of insect stings.  This work led him to coauthor one of the comprehensive tomes on the subject of insect venom Insect Defenses: Adaptive Mechanisms and Strategies of Prey and Predators.  Unfortunately for Schmidt, in the course of his researches, he has been stung/bitten innumerable times by various aggressive and toxic insects (and other creepy crawlies) from around the world.

Did you know that bullet ants look just like ants.  In a moment that fact will horrify you. ( Photo: Getty Images/Peter Arnold)

Did you know that bullet ants look just like ants? In a moment that fact will horrify you. ( Photo: Getty Images/Peter Arnold)

Based on these experiences, Schmidt attempted to categorize the algogenic (i.e. pain-inducing) effects of hymenopteran stings in the now world-famous Schmidt sting pain index.  This index is a captivating blend of subjective pain analysis, horrifying real world experience, and inventive poetry.   The lowest sting on the Schmidt index is a 0—betokening a sting which has no effect on humans. The highest rating is a 4 which describes an experience of maddening absolute agony.  The index became famous because of an interview with Outdoor magazine.  Schmidt has since conceded that his descriptive efforts lack an empirical basis and that stings vary depending on body location and the amount of venom injected.  Because of such admissions, Wikipedia took down its remarkable table of stings–which is a shame because the subjective descriptions gave the index its visceral power.  Here is a sampling copied verbatim from “Retrospectacle: A Neuroscience Blog”:

1.0 Sweat bee: Light, ephemeral, almost fruity. A tiny spark has singed a single hair on your arm.

1.2 Fire ant: Sharp, sudden, mildly alarming. Like walking across a shag carpet & reaching for the light switch.

1.8 Bullhorn acacia ant: A rare, piercing, elevated sort of pain. Someone has fired a staple into your cheek.

2.0 Bald-faced hornet: Rich, hearty, slightly crunchy. Similar to getting your hand mashed in a revolving door.

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

2.x Honey bee and European hornet: Like a matchhead that flips off and burns on your skin.

3.0 Red harvester ant: Bold and unrelenting. Somebody is using a drill to excavate your ingrown toenail.

3.0 Paper wasp: Caustic & burning. Distinctly bitter aftertaste. Like spilling a beaker of hydrochloric acid on a paper cut.

4.0 Pepsis wasp: Blinding, fierce, shockingly electric. A running hair drier has been dropped into your bubble bath.

4.0+ Bullet ant: Pure, intense, brilliant pain. Like fire-walking over flaming charcoal with a 3-inch rusty nail in your heel.

While the work lacks rigorous empirical criteria, even the most relentlessly analytical critics seem to aver that being stung by over 150 different species of arthtopods gives Schmidt a certain robust validity.  The literary merit of the metaphors is certainly genuine (although one hopes that the good Doctor Schmidt never actually dropped a hair dryer into his bubble bath or let misanthropic vaudevillians torture him with fire).   Personally I have only been stung by sweat bees, honey bees, and yellow jackets, so I cannot testify to the more esoteric sting ratings (thankfully–since yellowjacket stings nearly did me in), however something sounds completely right about the yellowjacket sting description.  I recall a moment of warmth which metastasized almost immediately into a sour panic-inducing pain which spread through my arm and then my body.

A Yellow Jacket Sting (photo credit: Richard Martyniak)

A Yellow Jacket Sting (photo credit: Richard Martyniak)

In conclusion, I salute Justin Orvel Schmidt as a man of science and a masochistic poet/performance artist.  If he claims that a bullet ant sting is the worst hymenopteran sting, I see no cause to contradict him and I never want to think about it again.

Mathis Grünewald

Temptation of Saint Anthony from the Isenheim Altarpiece (Mathis Grünewald, ca. 1515, oil on panel)

Here is another portrayal of Saint Anthony tormented by demons—and what demons!  One is some sort of ambulatory stomach lined with teeth.  Another is a cross between a turkey and a mudpuppy.  A ghastly leprous frogman clutches at Saint Anthony while beings with stumps and fungi for heads lurch up out of the darkness.  High in the sky a glowing entity watches.  Is it God seen through a fog of pain or is it an ancient demon made of diaphanous glowing lunch meat?  The very forces of madness and hell are physically pulling Anthony apart.

Wow! What is this painting and what’s the story behind its hellishly vivid imagery?

This is one frame of a massive polyptych painted by Mathis Grünewald for the Monastery of St. Anthony in Isenheim near Colmar.  Grünewald painted the altarpiece between 1505 and 1515 and the completed work is difficult to describe because it has two sets of folding wings as well as a folding predella.

Wikipedia describes the altarpiece’s elaborate construction and its sad history:

The first view shows a Crucifixion scene, flanked by images of Saint Anthony and Saint Sebastian. There is a predella with a Lamentation of Christ, which remains in the second view also. When the outermost wings are opened, the second view shows scenes of the Annunciation, the original subject of Mary bathing Jesus to the accompaniment of an Angelic choir (or various other titles), and the Resurrection. The innermost view shows the Temptation of Saint Anthony and the Meeting of Saint Anthony and the Hermit Paul to the sides, and a pre-existing carved gilt-wood altarpiece by Nicolas Hagenau of about 1490. Now the altarpiece has been dis-assembled (and sawn through) so that all the views can be seen separately, except that the original sculpted altarpiece is no longer flanked by the panels of the third view, which are instead shown together. Carved wood elements at the top and bottom of the composition were lost in the French Revolution, when the whole painting survived nearly being destroyed.

The world is fortunate indeed that the mad iconoclasts of the French Revolution did not destroy the altarpiece because it is one of the foremost works of Gothic religious art.

Isenheim Altarpiece (Mathis Grünewald, ca. 1515, oil on panel)

Isenheim Altarpiece (Mathis Grünewald, ca. 1515, oil on panel)

Isenheim Altarpiece (Mathis Grünewald, ca. 1515, oil on panel)

The Monastery at Isenheim was a healing facility: the Antonine monks who lived and worked there specialized in the treatment of skin diseases.  A prevalent malady the brothers saw among their patiets was ergotism—a poisoning caused by fungus growing on wet rye (in fact during the Middle Ages the affliction was known as “Saint Anthony’s Fire” because the Antonine Monks were so gifted at treating it).  Alkaloid compounds in ergot constricted sufferers’ blood vessels and brought on dry gangrene. In the altarpiece Christ himself is afflicted by the skin condition as he hangs on the cross in the central panel. Various secondary characters throughout the work also seem to be suffering from the skin disease.

Besides suppurating lesions and gangrene, two other effects of ergotism were convulsions and terrible vivid hallucinations.  The ergot alkaloid ergotamine shares many structural similarities with LSD.  It is poignant to imagine the sick and injured patients at Isenheim desperately praying before the altarpiece for relief from an ailment which was unhinging their minds and literally causing them to rot away.  When they looked up at Saint Anthony’s torment, the intended viewers knew exactly how he felt.

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