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).


Monday Night Mystery: The Case of the Bullet Ant



My last post was a tutorial on how to identify the famous bullet ant, Paraponera clavata. Tonight’s challenge requires you to put this knowledge to the test.

The following list links to 10 photographs of various species flickr users have identified as “bullet ants”:


I will award one point per item to the first correct guess of each mystery insect. Identifications must be at provided to at least the level of genus.

The cumulative points winner for the month of December will win their choice of:

1) A guest post here on Myrmecos
2) Any 8×10 print from my insect photography galleries
3) A myrmecos t-shirt

Good luck!

How to identify the bullet ant, Paraponera clavata

Bullet ant, Paraponera clavata, Jatun Sacha reserve, Ecuador.


The most infamous ant in the world is surely the tropical American bullet ant, Paraponera clavata. This conspicuous insect is known for an unusually painful sting. It is not the only big rainforest ant, however, and other species are frequently mistaken for it.

Here is how to make sure that big ant you saw was really a bullet ant.

bullet ant range

1. Check your location: in the wild, bullet ants are only found in low-elevation forests from Honduras south to Paraguay. If you are not in Central or South America, you don’t have a bullet ant. (source)

2. Check the size: bullet ants are not just large, they are massive – over an inch long. They look like plastic toy ants brought to life.

3. Check for the characteristic thoracic horns. Bullet ants have a pair of blunt horns on the first segment of the thorax. No other ant its size has the horns.


4. Check the shape of the petiolar node. The waist of the bullet ant has a sharp, forward-leaning triangular node.



With these criteria in mind, here is a real bullet ant:

South America? Check. Massive? Check. Horns? Check. Forward-pointing waist segment? Check.

For comparison, these other large South American species are not bullet ants:

Dinoponera is big- even a bit bigger than the bullet ant, but Dinoponera is darker in color and lacks the horns on the thorax.
Ectatomma tuberculatum is an ubiquitous big rainforest ant with a shape confusingly similar to that of the bullet ant. But Ectatomma is too small, as are the horns, and the waist segment is the wrong shape.
Pachycondyla villosa is common and also packs a painful sting, but this large species is not big enough to be a bullet ant and it lacks the horns.
Atta leafcutter ant soldiers are big and even have the thoracic horns, but they aren’t big enough, they lack the right waist shape, and are their overall body proportions are different.
Cephalotes atratus black turtle ants are common and conspicuous, but they are much smaller than bullet ants and have sharp spines rather than blunt horns.
The golden carpenter ant Camponotus sericeiventris is not quite big enough, its horns are more forward on the thorax, and it doesn’t have the right waist shape.

 With any luck, you should now be able to check the identification of your purported bullet ant without having to run a sting test.




Paraponera clavata, the bullet ant

Paraponera clavata worker, Misahuallí, Ecuador

Meet the bullet ant.

Why is it called that? Well, the searing sting of this New World tropical species apparently feels like a gunshot wound. It tops Justin Schmidt’s 4-point sting pain index:

Pure, intense, brilliant pain. Like fire-walking over flaming charcoal with a 3-inch rusty nail in your heel.

Paraponera clavata is one of those animals, like jaguars and monkeys, that everybody talks about in the rain forest. While there are certainly deadlier animals lurking in the Amazon, some snakes and big cats, Paraponera is respected as a more everpresent threat. It is one of the most dangerous species you are liable to encounter on a daily basis. The giant, inch-long workers are commonly seen walking up and down tree trunks as they travel from their soil nests up to the rich foraging grounds of the forest canopy.

And just how dangerous is the infamous bullet ant?


An ant steps off the drawing board

Every now and again one of those accidental, unplanned images turns out to be pretty cool. I was in the midst of photographing a rather uncooperative bullet ant (Paraponera) queen when she ran up on top of a ghetto flash diffuser I’d made out of graph paper. Instead of corralling her back down, I snapped a couple shots of her walking about on the paper, the strobe illuminating her from below.

photo details
Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 macro lens
Canon EOS 7D
ISO 200, f/14, 1/250 sec
at the Jatun Sacha Biological Station, Napo Ecuador