This week we return again to the Amazon Basin to visit one of the largest and most feared of all insects, the giant bullet ant, Paraponera clavata. As the name implies, the sting of this ant is extraordinarily painful and has been described as being as painful as a bullet shot from a gun. We have met other biting and stinging ants in previous episodes including leaf cutters, army ants, bull-horn acacia ants, Alleghany mound ants, and fire ants. But none of these match the punishment of the sting of the bullet ant.
Bullet ant nests occur near the base of trees and workers like this one are often in a rush to find meaty prey or sweet honeydew produced by sucking insects in the tree canopy. Video clip at 0.6 speed.
A little known measure of the pain associated with an insect’s sting is captured by the Schmidt sting pain index. Created by entomologist Justin O. Schmidt, this scale ranks pain associated with a variety of insect stings from 0 to 4. To put this into perspective, stings of some of the small solitary bees like mason bees we’ve met in Bug of the Week, produce pain in the 0 – 1 category of the sting pain index. Yellow jackets, which many of us have experienced, rank a 2. However, the bullet ant’s sting ranks as 4 on the Schmidt pain index, the highest level possible. Entomologist and photographer Alex Wild described his encounter with the sting of a bullet ant as “the gift that keeps on giving ... Like tissue or bone damage, it is a deep throbbing ache that crescendos over several hours.”
During daylight hours on the dim rainforest floor, bullet ants can be found foraging. At night these rapacious hunters are found on the trunks of trees searching for prey.
While I have tinkered with a variety of ant stings and bites over the years, upon encountering bullet ants in the rainforest I always eschew the chance for first-hand experience with this stinger. Not so for young men of the Sateré-Mawé tribe who live in the wilds of the Amazon. As part of their initiation to manhood, they must wear gloves packed with bullet ants. The gloves of terror are worn for at least ten minutes and the ritual must be repeated 20 times before the men are considered true warriors. Yikes!
The wonderful book “Insect Defenses” by David Evans and Justin Schmidt, and web postings “What Does A Bullet Ant Sting Feel Like?” by Alex Wild, and National Geographic’s “Initiation With Ants” were used in preparation for this episode. Bug of the Week also thanks the guides of Posada Amazonas for helping us locate bullet ants.
To learn more about the sting of bullet ants, check out the following links: