Nov 072009
photo provided courtesy of Emills1 on Flickr Creative CommonsHome Amazon River Basin
Habitattropical forest, at the base of trees
Nichepredatory insect
Favorite Foodother insects
Lengthone inch
Notable Featuretheir stings are described as the most painful on earth

Imagine pain 30 times worse than a bee sting. It is a pain described as walking across a bed of hot coals with a rusted nail inches deep in your sole. It’s fearsome, intense, blackout-inducing pain that can nag a victim for a day or longer as the venom courses through muscles. In fact, this particular insect’s sting is so powerful that it has been compared to being shot with a bullet.

The South American bullet ants are among the largest ants in the world, reaching nearly an inch in length. They inhabit tropical rainforests of Central and South America, ranging from Nicaragua down into the Amazon River Basin, where they like to roam about the trunks of trees in search of food. And as their name implies, they have a fearsome reputation.

Unlike their more social ant cousins, bullet ants are loners in the forests they inhabit, even though they live together in a nest. They are hostile to other bullet ants that they don’t recognize from their nest and will fight to the death. On the other hand, contact with members of the same nest will cause a temporary suspension of the loner lifestyle. If they happen to run into a familiar ant, they will communicate and sometimes pass food back and forth, but that is the extent of their social behavior. For the most part, bullet ants are looking out for number one. Instead of leaving a scent trail to tell other ants about a source of food, these solitary insects will exploit the meal themselves. In addition to feeding on insects, they also have a fondness for nectar and are often seen carrying a droplet of the sweet liquid in their mandibles.

Bullet ants are known and feared for their terrifying stings. Their sting is primarily for defense since most of the insects that the bullet ant eats are already dead. It’s classified as the most painful sting of any insect, beating out even that of the intimidating tarantula hawk wasp. The secret to the pain is in the cocktail of neurotoxins contained in the ant’s venom. The stinger pierces skin and a bulb at its base injects the venom into the wound, causing the cycle of pain as the toxins enter the bloodstream.

Though it seems insane to actively seek the stings of bullet ants, some South American tribes actually use the stings as tests of manhood. The Satere-Mawe people of Brazil are one such tribe. In preparation for the ceremony, bullet ants are collected from the forest and subdued, then woven into large mitts made of leaves. The young men undergoing the right of passage must then place these mitts on their hands and allow the ants to awaken from their stupor. As the enraged ants feverishly try to escape, they sting the hands mercilessly. The custom varies from tribe to tribe, but often boys who are seeking manhood must endure this ordeal without screaming – a tall order for someone under the sensation of being burned alive. And some tribes require that a man pass through this rite not once, but up to 20 times.

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