The bullet ant looks like an unassuming — yet quite large — ant.
But under that mild-mannered exoskeleton the ant harbours a venomous sting so painful some — including entomologist Justin Schmidt, who has been stung by 150 different species of venomous animals — claim it is “the worst pain known to man.”
They are named the bullet ant because their sting is so bad it “feels like you were shot by a gun.”
And while the venom is incredibly painful, it is not deadly and has no lasting effects after 24 hours. To the Amazon’s Sateré-Mawé people getting stung by bullet ants is part of life. They use bullet ant gloves that cause dozens of stings on the hands in a coming of age ritual.
Australian comedy duo Hamish & Andy ventured to the Amazon to try out this ritual themselves. The ant lives up to it’s name, given Hamish’s reaction in this YouTube video, and the pain he says lasted for hours and landed him in the hospital:
Naturalist Steven Backshall has been stung by a bullet ant and describes the feeling on an episode of BBC’s podcast The Infinite Monkey Cage:
The pain is throughout your whole body. You start shaking. You start sweating. It’s completely systemic. It goes through your whole body and it really does effect your nervous system. Your heart rate goes up. And if you have quite a few of them, you will be passing in and out of consciousness. There will be nothing in your world apart from pain for at least three or four hours.
Besides their extremely painful sting, bullet ants are also one of the largest ant species and can grow over an inch long.
Researchers are interested in what makes the sting so painful and if this potent neurotoxin could have some medical benefits. To study the chemistry of the venom they need to isolate it, so some brave researchers capture and milk them to extract their venom, just like a snake or spider is milked.
In this Brain Scoop video below Dr. Corrie Moreau of the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago shows host Emily Graslie how and why she milks these terrifying ants.
These ants live in the South American rain forest — Moreau brought the ants in the video back from recent field work in Panama.
During her field work, Moreau has only been bitten by the ant once — and she wants to keep it that way. So, to get a sample of the ant venom while avoiding pain herself, Moreau initially tried milking the ants, getting them to stick their stinger through a thin waxy film and inject their venom into a tube:
That strategy didn’t work all that well, according to Moreau, so she instead dissects out the venom glands using tiny tweezers and a microscope.
She first takes off the abdomen and then pulls out the venom gland. She needs to be very careful though because if she ruptures the venom gland while in the dissecting dish that venom is unusable.
So what does the venom do to someone that makes the bullet ant sting so painful?
What happens is that the venom, its technical term being poneratoxin, messes with how nerves function. The poneratoxin blocks people’s nerves from communicating properly and also extends the amount of time that a nerve is actively sending a signal. Interfering with nerves this way is what causes that excruciating gunshot-like pain.
But Backshall goes on to say that after the pain subsides the body’s overdose of adrenaline makes you feel “like a god.” And for weeks afterwards he felt great.
But researchers want to use the bullet ant’s venom in a practical way.
Scientists think the venom could be used as a natural insecticide. While others are studying how the venom may help develop new drugs because of how strongly people react to it. In low levels this venom could ironically serve as a painkiller.
Watch the entertaining video in its entirety:
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