YouTuber gains fame by letting poisonous bugs sting him

Katherine Ellison

THE WASHINGTON POST – Not for nothing is Nathaniel ‘Coyote’ Peterson known as the King of Sting.

Since launching his YouTube channel, Brave Wilderness, in 2014, the bearded adventurer in the Indiana Jones leather fedora has screamed, gasped and panted his way to viral fame, after tendering his arm to be stung by a parade of poisonous insects with such fiendish nicknames as the “bloodworm”, the “murder hornet” and the “executioner wasp”.

By some measures, Peterson has become more popular than ever during the pandemic lockdown, with nearly two million additional subscribers flocking to his channel for a reliable dopamine fix since March.

With 17.5 million subscribers, Brave Wilderness ranks 234 in a field of over 31 million YouTube channels. Social Blade estimates Peterson earns as much as USD294,000 a month from online ads, confirmation that what he calls his “extreme content” hits a nerve in more ways than one.

“For someone like my daughter, who’s in grade school, and her friends who watch YouTube, I’m a bigger star to them than Leonardo DiCaprio,” Peterson, 38, said in a recent interview.

His most successful videos – including STUNG by a BULLET ANT! (nearly 50 million views) – are variations on a simple formula.  Against a tropical background, set to loud, suspenseful music, he gets stung, writhes in pain, flashes back to say a few things about the insect, and returns for a wriggling close-up of beady eyes and antennae and the lingering money shot: the stinger sinking into his flesh.

Nathaniel “Coyote” Peterson holds a Cicada Killer, which he let sting him, in Northern Texas. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

Adding charm to these otherwise horrific scenes is Peterson’s personality, alternating between comic bravado and humility. He’ll look at the camera, shaking his head, as if to say, “Why would anybody do this?”

His answer, he said, is for the sake of entertaining education, targetted mainly to an audience ages five to 15. However intense the pain, he never uses profanity, and each video includes a warning: “Never approach or attempt to handle wildlife on your own.”

With every episode, he said, “I want someone watching to say: ‘That was a little crazy; that was a little extreme, but I now know this about this creature and I’m a lot less afraid of it’.”

This year, Peterson got his own TV show on the Discovery Channel’s Animal Planet, a rare crossover feat he compared to “getting drafted by the pros”. He hoped it might be a step toward his dream of becoming “the largest animal adventure brand on the planet – and in history”, but the run ended in April with no plans to renew. It’s not certain why, but one thing was clearly missing: not once in 18 episodes did he get stung.

Since then, he has faced an identity crisis. After his last insect encounter – with a giant Asian hornet in Japan – he announced that he intended to change things up: no small challenge, he conceded, for “someone whose identity has become synonymous with getting bitten and stung by stuff”.

He’s not averse to more pain, he insisted; he has simply exhausted the list of the most compelling bugs, and risked getting repetitive. After all, in a medium that thrives on shock value, how do you top the executioner wasp?

Peterson was first drawn to learn about wildlife as a child growing up in rural Newbury, Ohio, about 33 miles east of Cleveland. His mother chose his nickname on road trips to Arizona, after watching him chase after roadrunners, just like Looney Tunes’ Wile E Coyote. Except Peterson’s interest wasn’t so much in the birds but in the lizards they were chasing.

After studying filmmaking at Ohio State University, he worked as a lab technician in a printer-ink firm for 11 years, all the while dreaming of a dramatically different career. By 2009, he was travelling to nature spots with his collaborator, Mark Vins, shooting and editing videos on evenings, weekends and vacations.

Investing their own savings, Peterson and Vins produced features with a dizzying cast of reptiles and mammals.

Peterson kissed a moose, stared down a wolverine and picked porcupine quills out of his hand. Brave Wilderness launched six years later, after which the pair began releasing two videos a week, each about 20 minutes long.

In 2015, Peterson won an Emmy for a video involving a meeting with a grizzly bear named Adam in Bozeman. This one was explicitly educational, enlisting the tame animal to illustrate best practices when meeting a wild bear in the wilderness. Spoiler alert: Don’t try to outrun it.

It took another year before Peterson and Vins achieved the critical mass of subscribers that let them quit their day jobs, attracting ads for such diverse products as pet food, art supplies, and heart medication.

Megafame arrived serendipitously. On a working trip with Vins to Tucson in fall 2015, Peterson visited his mother, who had moved there several years earlier.

She warned him to beware of the harvester ants in her yard. Peterson took that as a dare.

“We were like, Dude, what do you think would happen if I just put my hands in there?” he recalled. Vins challenged him to last for 60 seconds. “Ah! Oorgh! AH!” Peterson grunted, as ants crawled up his arms and pant legs, plunging tiny mandibles into his flesh as their stings turned the back of his hands bright red. But he held out for the full minute.

The video remained unedited for the next several weeks, but within a day of its release in January 2016 ANT ATTACK! went viral, tallying more than a million views. At last count, it had more than eight million.

 Peterson wasn’t that surprised. As many as 19 million Americans share a fear of skittering, crawling bugs, says entomologist Jeffrey A Lockwood, author of The Infested Mind: Why Humans Fear, Loathe, and Love Insects. The reasons, Lockwood said, include evolutionary adaptation – after all, some of those critters are dangerous – and cultural reinforcement.

The success of ANT ATTACK! inspired Peterson’s decision to be stung, over the next two years, by several frightening-looking insects ascending in degree of pain. Conveniently, he said, he has a high tolerance.

Only once – following an encounter with a giant desert centipede (16.7 million views) – did he seek medical attention, as he explained in a follow-up video: VENOM EXTRACTION – Centipede Bite Aftermath! (28.7 million views).

Topping the pain list was the “executioner wasp”, Peterson’s made-up name for Polistes carnifex, an inch-long brown-and-yellow paper wasp he tracked down in Costa Rica.

Peterson was inspired by Tucson entomologist Justin Schmidt, a mild-mannered raconteur now in his early 70s.

He pays homage to his mentor in a 2017 video, Origin of STINGS! for his invention of the Pain Scale for Stinging Insects. That subjective, sometimes whimsical connoisseur’s guide rates the stings of 78 species, from “light and ephemeral, almost fruity” (for Halictidae, or “sweat bees”) to “Like walking over flaming charcoal with a three-inch nail embedded in your heel” (for Paraponera clavata, the “bullet ant”.)

Since leaving Animal Planet, Peterson has kept busy. He’ll release his latest book, The Beast of Bites. He has also been running experiments, some involving venomous snakes and snarling police dogs, as he searches for the next big thing to keep eyeballs returning to his channel.

And on September 19, undoubtedly to the delight of his fans, Peterson will release a new video, in which he “came out of Sting Retirement”, as he put it, to get stung by one more bug: a cicada killer wasp in Texas. “I made an exception with this one,” he said, arguing the content had irresistible educational value because the cicada killer often gets confused with the Asian giant hornet. “It’s just a one-off,” he said last week. “This is going to be the last sting.”

Hmm. Well, we’ll see.