There’s something on your face. You feel it land on your cheek, and when it stings, the pain is overwhelming. Your shrieks send the monkeys into whoops of primal terror. All you can do is writhe in agony and pray to live. You’ve just been stung by a bullet ant.
The bullet ant owns the title of earth’s most painful insect bite. It feels like being shot with a gun (hence the name), and the pain can last for 12 hours. But it’s hardly the only creepy-crawly creature that can elicit cries from its victims. The earth is covered with insects that can make the toughest traveler weep. In other words, watch out for them when you’re in the rainforest—or even your backyard.
Ironically, the bullet ant’s sting isn’t dangerous. Insects cause pain or injury, but seldom both, according to entomologist Justin Schmidt, research director of Arizona’s Southwest Biological Institute and coauthor of the book Insect Defenses. And Schmidt should know: he’s been stung by tons of insects (including the bullet ant) in the name of research.
All this pain has enabled him to create the Schmidt Pain Index, comparing nonlethal insect stings and bites in the same way that the Scoville Scale ranks the heat of chile peppers. “The sting of a honeybee is a messy and burning pain, while the trap-jaw ant has a very medicinal, almost synthetic feel with no burning or itching,” explains Schmidt in a tone of reverence.
The Schmidt Pain Index reads like a sommelier’s diary. At the lowest end of the scale is the sting of the sweat bee, which Schmidt describes as “light, ephemeral, almost fruity, as if a tiny spark has singed a single hair on your arm.” At the top end of the scale is transcendental agony. Take the tarantula hawk wasp. Its sting, according to Schmidt’s index, is “blinding, fierce, shockingly electric, like a running hair dryer has been dropped into your bubble bath.”
What’s most surprising, perhaps, is the fact that some fearsome creatures can be comparatively harmless. “During a lecture, I provoked the biggest bark scorpion to sting me. It hurt less than a honeybee,” says Schmidt. But sometimes, the least obvious insects administer some of the most agonizing stings. Ants, bees, and wasps can inject toxins powerful enough to make anyone cry for their mommy. Such an impressive arsenal may seem like overkill, but to an insect protecting the welfare of the entire colony, it’s a perfectly reasonable response.
If you’re unfortunate enough to be stung by one of these creatures, you could take a painkiller, but don’t expect much relief: insect toxins have uniquely evolved so as to not trigger the body’s natural pain-numbing endorphins. Schmidt’s advice: suffer through it and fully experience the wonder of nature.