What Does A Bullet Ant Sting Feel Like?

I was stung by a bullet ant last week in Costa Rica. On purpose.

Paraponera clavata


How did it feel?

Bearable. Given this species’ fearsome reputation, I was expecting worse. It certainly hurt, though.

It wasn’t just the initial sear from the sting’s penetration, imparting all the sharpness one would anticipate from a relatively large hymenopteran, but the way the pain sank beneath the skin.

The bullet ant has a reputation for feeling like a firearm wound. Having never been shot, I can’t make much of the comparison. I imagine an actual shooting would be far more traumatic, but all the same I understand where the name comes from. A Paraponera sting feels more profound than the average insect sting. Like tissue or bone damage, it is a deep throbbing ache that crescendos over several hours. Unlike a honey bee sting, whose sharpness gives way quickly to a dull itch, the bullet ant’s sting is the gift that keeps on giving. Less a gunshot, I suppose, than the lasting pain following a solid crowbar to the arm. Although bearable, mine still ached when I went to bed 8 hours later. All pain was gone in the morning.

We tend not to make much of where on the body we’re stung, but stings are like real estate. Location, location, location. The forearm is a relatively mild substrate, a safe place to experiment with stings. I was once zinged on the tip of the nose by a common honey bee. Holy bejeezus. I’ll take twelve bullet ants to the arm before I wish to relive that one.

(Special thanks to Andrés Rojas and Erica Parra for planning the session and wrangling the ants! For more gruesome bullet ant entertainment science, see them and others getting zinged at StingFest 2015).


30 thoughts on “What Does A Bullet Ant Sting Feel Like?”

  1. Good description. I had one up a pant leg nail me three times before I managed to get it out. Happened in Amazonian Peru – Loreto, in the Pacaya-Samiria Reserve. How it felt was just as you describe. The only difference is that I developed hard lumps below the skin that lasted, in one of the three stings, for several months before going away. The pain was also dull for a second day. Thanks for a great post.

    1. Are Bullet Ants only found in South America? I got stung by an Ant looking insect about a month ago. It was about an inch and a half long.
      I can compare the pain to getting Potassium through IV… lol that was the most painful pains I’ve felt on my life that I can compare it to. It stung me on my small toe, I felt deep into the bone, burning, throbbing up my leg. It was very, very painful. And it lasted hours! I could still feel it the next morning. I want to know what stung me because it still itches. I am in Northern California

    1. I wish. Instead, I went from the sting to giving a lecture on the taxonomy of Braconid wasps. Parasitoid taxonomy is so bad that I even forgot about the sting.

      1. The pain comes from the poison inside the sting called ponera-toxin, hense the scientific name for the bullet ant:paraponera clavata.

  2. Aaron Stannard

    How did it compare to being stung by Pogonomyrmex (assuming you’ve been stung by one)? I’ve been stung by pogos over a dozen times while working in southern Arizona. Each time I had this strange sinking pain in the groin akin to being kicked in that region.

    1. Interestingly, Pogonomyrmex is an apt comparison. The Paraponera sting was similar in a number of ways: the deep ache, the cold sweat in the wound, the lasting pain. If I were to classify stings into two categories: (Sharp, short-lived) | (Deep, long-lasting), I would definitely group Paraponera with Pogonomyrmex. And with Rhytidoponera. But the pain didn’t migrate like a Pogo’s, and was certainly more intense.

  3. I agree about Paraponera, I was also really deceived when first tasted its sting, and have carried several replicates eversince to confirm that the pain is not as hard. While the “bullet ant” name seems therefore misleading, the other common name it receives, at least in French Guiana, “the 24 ant” is coherent with the length of the pain: a whole day after the sting we can still feel the venom. It is noteworthy however, that some intraspecific variability might exist, so who knows… keep on trying!

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  6. I remember working on Paraponera in France. I wanted to do some learning experiments with them, mostly involving their sting (aversive learning). Once I accidentally bumped my finger against the abdomen, and immediately this huge stinger with a big drop of poison came out. I was very happy my finger was out of harm’s way fast enough. Scary (but amazing) creatures.

  7. I recently started doing pest control for a living and came across some ants like this on One of my first jobs last week. Not sure if it was this one exactly but it hurt like hell? Any Idea what kind it might have been? Im in the states

  8. When I was a Boy Scout in Panama in the mid-60s, I was stung by a bullet ant on my chest. Having been shot with a 9 mm when I was in the Army, I can attest of the fact that the bullet ant sting is equally ferocious (it blew my finger off). My chest swelled and I ran a a fever and had a tremendous headache. I was rushed to the aid station at the scout camp which was manned by a US Army Special Forces medic. Wise to the ways of the jungles of Vietnam and Panama, he slapped a piece of frozen bacon to my chest and left it on for two hours. Not only did the pain go away, but the bacon turned an impressive green color. I still bear a cheery mark on my chest where I was stung. How’s that for homeopathic medicine.

    Maj. Jack Barnhill US Army Retired and an Eagle Scout

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  10. I have been stung on my finger by a red harvester ant in Palm Spring and a honey worker bee east of L.A. as a child. They hurt. 🙁

  11. Haha my boyfriend said he got bit by one before on his leg, he was in a different country. He said it felt pretty much how you described. He told me he didn’t cry but his mother told me otherwise 😉 lol but that sounds pretty painful, you are very brave to have done this.

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  13. Shavarsh Sakadjian

    I got stung by an Australian jumping black bull ant , the sting felt very hot and then it felt like there was buzzing electric shock like sensation numbing my finger tips , it stung me through a glove that was workout around the pinkie knuckle , I felt the sting and brushed it off , must have taken the sting out or just in time not to get the full effect of the sting , I held my hand under the tap for few minutia, the sensation lasted for half hour but now hours has passed I can feel where ipeitsnetratation .

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