World's Most Painful Insect Bites
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.
This rather unassuming inch-long ant is capable of inflicting the most agonizing sting in the insect world. The Schmidt Pain Index describes it as “pure, intense, brilliant pain. Like fire-walking over flaming charcoal with a three-inch rusty nail in your heel.” According to victims who have suffered both the misfortune of being stung by a bullet ant and being shot with a firearm, the feeling is similar (hence the name). And the pain can last for 12 hours.
Where They’re Found: Mostly the rainforests of Central America, from Nicaragua to Paraguay.
How to Avoid Them: Bullet ants make their nests where they have easy access to the rainforest canopy, so avoid laying your picnic blanket among the buttress roots of towering trees. If one happens to crawl up your leg, hold your breath—they often attack if breathed upon.
Tarantula Hawk Wasp
The tarantula hawk wasp could scare anyone to death. Not only is it up to two inches long and three inches wide, but the females actively hunt tarantulas. While it’s very close to the most painful sting on earth, the agony is mercifully short-lived—it stops after a few minutes.
Where They’re Found: While tarantula hawk wasps are abundant in South America (more than 250 varieties have been identified), some varieties are common in the U.S., Australia, Africa, Asia, and India.
How to Avoid Them: Take afternoon naps. These monsters are least active in the heat of the day.
The Frank Gehry of the insect world, these inch-long wasps create magnificent curvy, detailed nests from wood fiber and saliva and, for the most part, are very placid. It pays to not get too close, though. According to the Schmidt Pain Index (on which the paper wasp scores a robust 3 out of 4), the sting is “caustic and burning with a distinctly bitter aftertaste. Like spilling a beaker of hydrochloric acid on a paper cut.”
Where They’re Found: There are more than 1,000 species of paper wasp all over the globe, with more than 20 found in North America.
How to Avoid Them: Head south. The only continent free of paper wasps is Antarctica.
Red Harvester Ant
Red harvester ants are adorably industrious, foraging for seeds on the forest floor and hoarding them in underground larders. However, they can be downright aggressive when defending their stash. Their sting ranks alongside paper wasps in intensity and is “bold and unrelenting, like somebody using a drill to excavate your ingrown toenail,” says Schmidt.
Where They’re Found: The U.S. has 22 species of harvester ants, seven of which are found in Texas.
How to Avoid Them: If you find a harvester ant colony in the yard, consider moving; the queen can outlive a mortgage.
Hornets have an image problem. In spite of their size (they can measure an inch and a half in length), they’re generally far less aggressive than wasps. Of course, that doesn’t stop them from stinging when provoked. The sting from a European hornet compares to that of honeybees and feels like “a match that flips out and burns on your skin,” says Schmidt.
Where They’re Found: The European hornet is common throughout Continental and Eastern Europe.
How to Avoid Them: You can’t avoid the hornet, but be extra wary in Germany, where the European hornet is a protected species.
Though no bovines have made the official death toll, many humans have, as yak-killer toxin can cause severe allergic reactions. In fact, the death toll in Japan from yak-killers is reputedly greater than that from all other wild animals in the country combined. According to some survivors, it feels like “a hot nail being driven into the leg.”
Where They’re Found: Asian hornets can be found all across Asia, from Japan to Bhutan.
How to Avoid Them: Stick to eating at McDonald’s, as deep-fried hornets are a common delicacy in many regional restaurants.
German Yellow Jacket
The common yellow jacket packs a mighty punch, and the German variety, introduced accidentally to the U.S. in 1975, even more so. Its aggressive manner has usurped the native yellow jacket to such an extent that many other insects mimic German yellow jackets in an effort to be mistaken for a bully. As with many wasps, bees, and hornets, these insects mark their victims with scent so other yellow jackets can locate the intruders and sting them repeatedly.
Where They’re Found: Just like hamburgers and frankfurters, German yellow jackets have spread far beyond Germany and now range worldwide.
How to Avoid Them: Ironically, they love hamburgers, frankfurters, and sweet foods likely to be served at a barbecue. Keep food covered.
A single fire ant sting is not particularly painful (Schmidt rates it as a 1.2 on his scale). But “no one is stung by just one fire ant,” says Schmidt. “They get stung by many.” And 20 bites from fire ants will certainly elevate the pain factor significantly. For such small creatures, they’re also quite toxic. “The toxin used for causing pain is similar to what Socrates was forced to drink to commit suicide in ancient Greece,” says Schmidt.
Where They’re Found: Fire ants have stowed away on cargo vessels and are now an invasive pest throughout the U.S., Australia, China, and the Philippines.
How to Avoid Them: They build their nests under fallen timber or paving stones and particularly like riverbanks, ponds, and lawns for their easy access to water. Avoid digging in wet soil.
Amazon Giant Centipede
These carnivorous centipedes, which can grow up to a foot long, need a potent bite to kill large prey like mice and bats. Schmidt estimates the pain to be at the top of the scale, and while he confesses to not having been bitten himself, he says, “Centipede bites produce a burning pain that hurts for a long time. People are usually whining and limping around a good 12 hours later.”
Where They’re Found: The name suggests that Amazon Giant Centipedes might be confined to the deepest recesses of the Amazon. In fact, they’re common throughout the northwest of South America as well as Trinidad, Hispaniola, and Jamaica.
How to Avoid Them: While spelunking, it pays to keep a low profile; the centipedes often hang from the ceiling to catch bats as they fly by.
Don’t dismiss the sting of the common honeybee. The toxic cocktail of melittin and other amines acts on the heart and restricts the blood vessels. The pain is hot and messy and familiar to almost everyone, which is why Schmidt placed the honeybee sting in the center of the pain index.
Where They’re Found: Honeybees may have originated in Central Asia, but there are now 20,000 varieties worldwide.
How to Avoid Them: Geographically speaking, you can’t avoid them. Once stung, you’re even more of a target: they secrete a pheromone that encourages other bees to attack. The substance can’t be washed off easily, so hiding in the river for the swarm to pass is a bad idea.