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What Does A Bullet Ant Sting Feel Like?

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

Paraponera clavata

Ow.

 

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).

 

“Why do so many tropical ants sting, while those in Boreal latitudes never do?”

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In the comments, Vladimir Dinets asks a deceptively simple question:

A quick question: why do so many tropical ants sting, while those in Boreal latitudes never do?

My first response is that Vladimir’s premise isn’t quite right: after all, the jack jumper stinging me above is from temperate, not tropical, Australia, and some of the boreal Myrmica do sting. But the general pattern holds: most of the stinging ants are tropical, and we are much more likely to be stung by an ant in warmer climates than in cold ones.

I have some thoughts on this observation (related to an old post of mine), including the notion that this may be one of those ultimately unknowable deep evolutionary puzzles, but before I launch into it I’d like to hear your opinions.

What do you think? Why do more ants sting in the tropics?

 

These are a few of my favorite stings…

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…well, not really.  But an exchange I had at Photo Synthesis with Andrew Bleiman of Zooillogix got me thinking about all the different insects that have charmingly envenomated me at one time or another.

Myrmecia piliventris, Australia

Myrmecia piliventris, Australia

So I’m starting a meme called Things That Have Stung Me.  The rules are simple:

  1. List all the things that have stung you.
  2. Bites don’t count.
  3. Pass the meme to 3 or more other bloggers you suspect have also been well-zinged.

Here are mine.

Things that have stung me: Continue reading →