Summary: Bullet ants are known for their nasty stings. The pain of their stingers is 30 times worse than a bee or wasp sting. Certainly enough to take your breath away.
Curious about the bullet ant and why its name sounds so dangerous? It is said that getting stung by one of these little guys is like getting shot by a bullet. The bullet ant is distinguished from other ants by its harsh sting and large size. It is the largest type of ant in the world. It can grow up to an inch in length and is typically either red or brown in color. The bullet ant likes to nest at the bases of trees. It is also known as the 24-hour ant because the pain from the sting is said to last 24 hours.
This scary critter derives its name from its sting, which has been proven to be the most painful sting out of all the invertebrates in the world. Imagine getting stung by a big, ugly wasp and think of the pain it brings. Now imagine a sting 30 times more painful. This is the equivalent of the bullet ant's sting. In fact, the Schmidt Sting Index describes it as similar to œfire-walking over charcoal with a 3-inch rusty nail in your heel. I definitely would not want to be around this insect when it gets mad.
Some tribes in the Amazon have an interesting ritual for the males of their societies. Adolescent boys go through a rite of passage into adulthood that involves bullet ants. They are stung by hundreds of these painful insects in order to prove their manhood. A young man must stick his hands into gloves that contain a couple hundred bullet ants. He must keep his hands in the gloves for at least ten minutes.
You may be wondering who would willingly handle the bullet ants to place them into the gloves, considering they are more painful than root canal. The ants are found among trees, and great care is used when picking them up. The tribe's medicine man drugs the ants to temporarily allow them to doze off. While they are dazed, he places them into the gloves, ensuring that the stingers are facing the inside layers of the gloves. The medicine man also helps the initiates by dancing with them during the ritual as a distraction to their pain.
During the ten minute ritual, a young man feels sharp pricking from the stingers, but nothing too painful. However, the aftereffects of the stings are far worse. The venom shoots quickly through the blood of the body and into the muscles. The muscles become extremely weak, the entire body shakes, the lips swell and the eyelids begin to droop. The young man sweats profusely and drools uncontrollably. He will not be aware of his surroundings and may become very confused. These effects can last as long as 3 hours.
After the worst part is over, the pain still does not subside. The young man's hands swell two or three times their normal size and remain swollen for at least another twelve hours. The sharp pains continue to come and go. The effects of the bullet ants will not fully dissipate until 24 hours after being stung. If a young man can handle physical pain induced by bullet ants, it is felt he will certainly be capable of handling anything. Some tribes even require men to commit to this ritual not just once, but 20 times before becoming a tribe warrior. I'd rather go to the marines for my training, thank you.
The toxin the bullet ant gives off from its stinger causes all of these effects. This toxin is called poneratoxin which causes slow, but harsh contractions of muscles. After being stung by a bullet ant, animals have no control over relaxing or contracting their muscles. They can only wait until the venom wears off and for their bodies to return to a normal state.
Tribal peoples of Central America also use bullet ants in their cultures. They can be used as an aid against rheumatism. Bullet ants are used to seal wounds. The ants have strong mandibles, or jaws are placed over an open wound. The ant's mandibles seal the wound tightly, and the saliva of the bullet ant provides an extra layer of protection for the wound.
The good news is that bullet ants do not live in North America. However, you may encounter some when visiting a zoo or when traveling abroad, especially to Central or South America. In the off chance you experience a bullet ant sting, have someone take you to the emergency room immediately. You cannot drive because of the pain that will hit you about ten minutes after being stung. Also, take an antihistamine. Many people are allergic to bullet ant stings and may suffer severe allergic reactions, including anaphylactic shock.