Hailing from the humid tropical rainforests of Central and South America, the bullet ant strikes fear in those who know of its existence. Though feared by many, this insect isn’t usually aggressive. Read more to learn about this fascinating creature.
1. One of the most painful stings of any insect
Throughout its geographic range from Honduras to Southern Brazil, the bullet ant is notorious for its highly painful sting. In fact, its name derives from the fact that its sting feels almost like a gunshot wound. The bullet ant is ranked Level 4 in the Schmidt sting pain index, which is the highest level of pain on the scale. To quote the late entomologist Justin O. Schmidt (creator of the index) himself, being stung by a bullet ant was “like walking over flaming charcoal with a three-inch nail embedded in your heel.”.
The sting from a bullet ant can last for around 24 hours. Its venom, a unique toxin known as poneratoxin, is a type of neurotoxin that forces affected nerves to go into a state of maximum overdrive, sending out signals that create a continuously painful sensation. Reported symptoms include local paralysis, nausea, diarrhea, fever, and obviously, excruciating pain.
Despite its frightening reputation, bullet ants aren’t usually aggressive unless provoked or protecting their nests. Nobody has been recorded to die from the stings alone, though severe allergic reactions could potentially be lethal. Ironically, poneratoxin is currently being researched in the medical field as a potential painkiller.
2. Queens look similar to workers
Unlike many other ant species, the queen of the bullet ant species is similar in appearance to her workers, though she is typically a bit larger in size. Bullet ants are one of the largest known ant species living today, so workers could even be mistaken for queens. Being considered primitive among other ant species, bullet ants do not display a sophisticated caste system as many of their other relatives do. Like those of other ant species, queen ants hatch from their pupae as alates. An alate is an ant that sports a pair of functional wings. Alates consist of freshly emerged queens and males. Bullet ants breed year-round and have no set breeding season. After mating, queen ants will discard their wings and search for places to form new colonies.
3. They prefer life on the trees
Bullet ants spend most of their lives foraging up in the trees. They will forage at all levels of the tree canopy. Occasionally, these insects can be found foraging on the forest floor, though they prefer an arboreal existence. Bullet ants prefer lowland rainforests where trees are abundant.
These ants form their nests inside the bases of trees, preferring those with buttresses. Some nests, however, have been observed higher in the treetops. They also prefer nesting in trees that contain extrafloral nectaries. Extrafloral nectaries are special organs on some plant species that produce sweet nectar for ants to collect and feast upon. This trait co-evolved with ants to allow plants to utilize them as a method of defense. Bullet ants are very defensive of their nests: if disturbed, they will swarm out angrily and will proceed to attack any intruder careless enough to mess with these insects.
4. Bullet ants aren’t picky eaters
Unlike many other ant species, which tend to specialize in certain types of foods, bullet ants aren't very picky eaters. They mainly forage for sugary nectar droplets from extrafloral nectaries; however, they’ll also hunt for small invertebrates unlucky enough to cross their paths. To avoid predation, caterpillars of the Glasswing butterfly attempt to produce chemicals that taste foul to bullet ants.
A recent research study has also discovered that bullet ants will also scavenge for carrion, harvesting flesh from a dead carcass. This has shown that bullet ants are potentially important scavengers ecologically in their environments. Such studies like this show that a lot of the bullet ant remains unknown and that there's still so much to learn about them.
The bullet ant isn’t without predators, however. Cane toads have been recorded to feast on bullet ants, and some nests have been entirely demolished by these hungry amphibians. Some species of phorid flies also prefer parasitizing bullet ants, typically those that are wounded. These flies will lay an egg in the ant, and the larva that hatches will eventually devour its insides. Healthy ants are usually able to fend off flies.
5. They are used in initiation ceremonies
In South America, the indigenous Sateré-Mawé tribe of Amazonian Brazil uses the bullet ant as a traditional rite of passage. To transition their status into manhood, boys as young as 13 years of age must stick their hands in gloves containing around a hundred bullet ants each. The ants are caught, dipped in a natural sedative, and then restrained within the woven nets of the glove. As soon as the ants awaken, they’re already aggravated and ready to sting, and the boy must leave their hand inside for approximately 5-10 minutes. To stay focused, the initiated teenager will also commence in dancing and chanting with a few other tribemates.
He must repeat the process around 20 times, and this may span for months or even years. The pain is so intense that besides arm paralysis, he may even erratically shake or hallucinate for days on end.