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The sting of the bullet ant, <i>Paraponera clavata</i>, is rated as the most painful in the world by a scientist who has spent a career getting stung.

The sting of the bullet ant, Paraponera clavata, is rated as the most painful in the world by a scientist who has spent a career getting stung.

Didier Descouens

Ig Nobel prizes honor bee stings, elephant urination

The nostril, the lips, and the shaft of the penis: Those are the most painful places to be stung by a honey bee. At least, if you're a man. And the author of the study.

But the pain was all worth it tonight, as Michael Smith, a Ph.D. student in entomology at Cornell University won one of several awards handed out at Harvard University's Sanders Theater as part of the annual Ig Nobel Prizes. This year's ceremony, as always presided over by Marc Abrahams (editor of Improbable Researchthe science humor magazine), paid recognition to scientific research "that makes people laugh, and then think."

But back to Smith. For statistical rigor, he stung himself with honey bees three times in each of 25 locations. The best places to be stung? The skull, the middle of the tip of the toe, and the upper arm, he reported last year in a PeerJ paper entitled "Honey bee sting pain index by body location."

Smith shared the prize with the granddaddy of insect-induced pain, entomologist Justin Schmidt of the Carl Hayden Bee Research Center in Tucson, Arizona. Over the course of decades of field research to study Hymenoptera—the taxonomic order of insects that includes bees, wasps, and ants—he developed what is fittingly known as the Schmidt sting pain index, building on research that debuted in a 1983 paper in the Archives of Insect Biochemistry and Physiology. It is a five-point scale of agony that ranges from harmless stings that are barely detectible to the sting of the bullet ant, a "pure, intense, brilliant pain" that lasts for hours.

It wasn't the only recognition for the science of pain. A team of doctors and medical researchers at the University of Oxford and at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Aylesbury, U.K., scooped an Ig for their study of appendicitis and speed bumps.

The disease is notoriously difficult to diagnose, leading to a large proportion of both false positives—where patients undergo surgery they don't need—as well as false negatives—where appendicitis is mistaken for gas or cramps and left untreated. The team discovered an extremely fast and inexpensive diagnostic technique: Ask the patients whether they experienced unusually sharp pain while driving over speed bumps on the way to the hospital. It proved to be a more sensitive predictor of appendicitis than most of the standard methods, the team reported in 2012 in the BMJ.

But it wasn't all painful this year. Research on relief also got the nod. Scientists at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta who collected urine from various mammals came to the startling conclusion that nearly all of them—from dogs to elephants—took about the same amount of time to pee. Although an elephant may have 100 times more urine in its bladder than a dog, its pee gushes about 100 times faster. In what has come to be known as the Golden Rule, all mammals tend to urinate for about 21 seconds, the team reported last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Abrahams concluded the ceremony with advice to all the scientists listening. "If you didn't win a prize—and especially if you did—better luck next year!"

You can see all of the 2015 winners on the Ig Nobel Prize site.