The Bullet Ant: The Insect With the World's Most Painful Sting

Bullet Ant or Conga Ant (Paraponera clavata)
Bullet Ant or Conga Ant (Paraponera clavata). Dr Morley Read / Getty Images

The bullet ant (Paraponera clavata) is a tropical rainforest ant named for its powerfully painful sting, which is said to be comparable to being shot with a bullet.

The bullet ant has many common names, however. In Venezuela, it is called the "24-hour ant" because the pain of a sting can last a full day. In Brazil, the ant is called formigão-preto or "big black ant." The Native American names for the ant translate to, "the one who wounds deeply." By any name, this ant is feared and respected for its sting.

Appearance and Habitat

Worker ants range from 18 to 30 mm (0.7 to 1.2 in) in length. They are reddish-black ants with large mandibles (pincers) and a visible stinger. The queen ant is slightly larger than the workers.

Bullet ants live in the tropical rainforest of Central and South America, in Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and Brazil. The ants build their colonies at the base of trees so they can forage in the canopy. Each colony contains several hundred ants.

Predators, Prey, and Parasites

Bullet ants eat nectar and small arthropods. One type of prey, the glasswing butterfly (Greta oto) has evolved to produce larvae that taste unpleasant to bullet ants.

Larvae of the glasswing butterfly taste bad to bullet ants.
Larvae of the glasswing butterfly taste bad to bullet ants. Helaine Weide / Getty Images

The phorid fly (Apocephalus paraponerae) is a parasite of injured bullet ant workers. Injured workers are common because bullet ant colonies fight with each other. The scent of the injured ant lures the fly, which feeds on the ant and lays eggs in its wound. A single injured ant may harbor up to 20 fly larvae.

Bullet ants are preyed upon by various insectivores and also by each other.

The Most Painful Insect Sting

Although nonaggressive, bullet ants will sting when provoked. When one ant stings, it releases chemicals that signal other ants in the vicinity to sting repeatedly. The bullet ant has the most painful sting of any insect, according to the Schmidt Pain Index. The pain is described as blinding, electric pain, comparable to being shot with a gun.

Two other insects, the tarantula hawk wasp and warrior wasp, have comparable stings to that of the bullet ant. However, the pain from the tarantula hawk sting lasts less than 5 minutes, and that from the warrior wasp extends to two hours. Bullet ant stings, on the other hand, produce waves of agony that last 12 to 24 hours.

Action of poneratoxin on sodium channels to produce pain.
Action of poneratoxin on sodium channels to produce pain.  Pchien2

The primary toxin in bullet ant venom is poneratoxin. Poneratoxin is a small neurotoxic peptide that inactivates voltage-gated sodium ion channels in skeletal muscle to block synapse transmission in the central nervous system. In addition to excruciating pain, the venom produces temporary paralysis and uncontrollable shaking. Other symptoms include nausea, vomiting, fever, and cardiac arrhythmia. Allergic reactions to the venom are rare. While the venom is not lethal to humans, it paralyzes or kills other insects. Poneratoxin is a good candidate for use as a bio-insecticide.

First Aid

Most bullet ant stings can be prevented by wearing over-the-knee boots and watching for ant colonies near trees. If disturbed, the ants' first defense is to release a stinky warning scent. If the threat persist, ants will bite and latch on with their mandibles prior to stinging. Ants may be brushed away or removed with tweezers. Quick action may prevent a sting.

In the event of stings, the first action is to remove the ants from the victim. Antihistamines, hydrocortisone cream, and cold compresses may help alleviate swelling and tissue damage at the sting site. Prescription pain relievers are required to address the pain. If untreated, most bullet ant stings resolve on their own, although the pain may last for a day and uncontrolled shaking may persist much longer.

Bullet Ants and Initiation Rites

Hands are coated with charcoal prior to putting on the bullet ant
Hands are coated with charcoal prior to putting on the bullet ant "gloves." The charcoal is supposed to minimize stinging. Geckochasing

The Sateré-Mawé people of Brazil use ant stings as part of a traditional rite of passage. To complete the initiation rite, boys first gather the ants. The ants are sedated by immersion in an herbal preparation and placed into gloves woven of leaves with all their stingers facing inward. The boy must wear the mitt a total of 20 times before he is considered to be a warrior.

Bullet Ant Fast Facts

  • Common Name: Bullet ant
  • Also Known As: 24-hour ant, conga ant, lesser giant hunting ant
  • Scientific Name: Paraponera clavata
  • Distinguishing Features: Reddish-black ants with large pincers and a visible stinger
  • Size: 18 to 30 mm (up to 1.2 in)
  • Diet: Nectar and small arthropods
  • Average Lifespan: Up to 90 days (worker)
  • Habitat: Tropical forests of Central and South America
  • Conservation Status: Least Concern
  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Arthropoda
  • Class: Insecta
  • Order: Hymenoptera
  • Family: Formicidae
  • Fascinating Fact: The bullet ant's sting is known for being the most painful sting of any insect. The pain, which has been compared to being shot with a bullet, naturally dissipates after 24 hours.

Sources

  • Capinera, J.L. (2008). Encyclopedia of Entomology (2nd ed.). Dordrecht: Springer. p. 615. ISBN 978-1-4020-6242-1.
  • Hogue, C.L. (1993). Latin American Insects and Entomology. University of California Press. p. 439. ISBN 978-0-520-07849-9.
  • Schmidt, J.O. (2016). The Sting of the Wild. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. p. 179. ISBN 978-1-4214-1928-2.
  • Schmidt, Justin O.; Blum, Murray S.; Overal, William L. (1983). "Hemolytic activities of stinging insect venoms". Archives of Insect Biochemistry and Physiology. 1 (2): 155–160. doi:10.1002/arch.940010205
  • Szolajska, Ewa (June 2004). "Poneratoxin, a neurotoxin from ant venom: Structure and expression in insect cells and construction of a bio-insecticide". European Journal of Biochemistry. 271 (11): 2127–36. doi:10.1111/j.1432-1033.2004.04128.x