Dasymutilla calorata with her sting extended showing its length

Velvet ants, which are wasps that parasitize bees and other wasps, have the longest stinging organs for their body length among the species studied. Credit: Joseph S. Wilson

Toxicology

How to tell how much wasp stings will hurt

Short stinging organs tend to carry more-toxic venom — but inflict less pain — than long ones.

The length of an insect’s stinging organ correlates with the unpleasantness of being stung, a survey of dozens of the creatures reveals.

Joseph Wilson at Utah State University in Tooele and two colleagues plotted the length of the stinging organ in 60 species — encompassing bees, ants and wasps — against the toxicity and pain associated with being stung. The researchers drew on pain scores from the literature and their own experiences. The authors have studied insects for a combined total of more than 50 years — and had some memorably painful encounters along the way.

They found that shorter stingers — technically known as ‘stings’ — tended to be loaded with more-toxic venom, whereas longer ones caused more pain. The appealingly furry velvet ants (Mutillidae), which are in fact wasps, had the longest stinging devices for their body size, but length relative to body size was not predictive of pain intensity.