Infamous for its painful sting reassembling the excruciating pain from a bullet wound is the bullet ants that patrol the Amazon forests. They are the most dangerous among the ant family when it comes to the pain caused by a sting and the poison that is released with each sting. In fact, they are so dangerous that a group of 4 or 5 ants are more than enough to easily take down a fully grown adult human being.
Let’s have a look at some of the interesting facts about their habitat, diet, food & most importantly on their sting.
Bullet Ant Facts
Scientific name: Paraponera clavata
Common name: Bullet ant, the 24 hours’ ant, conga
Distinguishable morphological features: Reddish black in color with visible stingers
Size: Up to 1.2 inches
Habitat: Amazon rain forests
Diet: Mainly nectar & other arthropods
Lifespan: Up to 90 days
Conservation status: Least concern
The natural habitat of bullet ants
Bullet ants are commonly seen in the Amazon rain forest that’s spread across Central and South America, in Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and Brazil.
These ants live in colonies that are built in the base of trees in order to forage in the canopy. They are commonly found making colonies on the tree trunks that are near the forest floor.
Each colony of bullet ants may have several hundreds of ants. Bullet ants are found to make habitats in 70 different species of trees, 2 species of lianas and 6 species of shrubs.
Unlike other ants, all the bullet ants in a colony may differ in size & appearance depending upon their nature of work.
The largest of the ants are the workers & guards while the smaller ones are tasked with taking care of the eggs & larvae. Worker ants are responsible for foraging for food and resources while the soldier ants guard the colony.
Bullet ants are not likely to be seen in places that are 750 meters below sea level. Some species of bullet ants are found to live at elevations of 1,500 meters in Parque La Amistad.
How big are they?
Bullet ants are the largest in the ant family that falls among the predator ant species. Among the bullet ants, the worker ants are biggest and they grow up to 1.2 inches in length with the queen ant slightly larger than the workers.
These ants are known for their distinguishable reddish black color, a visible stinger, and a large mandible. Bullet ants are relatively hairier than their close cousins.
What do Bullet ants eat?
Bullet ants mainly feed on nectar, small arthropods, tree sap, small insects (such as termites, mealworms, etc). The worker ants in the colony forage the forest canopy in search of food and when found carry them back to the colony in their large mandibles.
Bullet ants are active foragers that feed on plant exudates & sap. They consider eating these a snack while on the hunt for insects at night. Some ants are also found to show cannibalism too.
Most bullet ant colonies are found to fight each other and after each fight, the defeated ants are sometimes eaten.
How do Bullet ants hunt their prey?
Bullet ants produce a powerful neurotoxin called Ponerotoxin. When these ants hunt they sting their prey injecting the neurotoxin to the prey’s body.
Ponerotoxin when injected blocks synaptic transfer between the nerve cells (Communication between 2 nerve cells) making its prey immobile and easily carry it back to the colony.
Bullet ant venom is not life-threatening to larger mammals but is a powerful neurotoxin for the smaller arthropods. When bitten by a bullet ant the pain can last up to 24 hrs earning it the name 24-hour ant in Venezuela.
What do Bullet ants look like?
Bullet ants are the largest of the ant family and among them, the queen ant is the largest followed by the worker ants. The ants can measure anywhere between 18 to 30 cm in length.
Bullet ants have a distinguishable reddish-black colored body with large mandibles and a visible stinger. They look more like large toys that are brought to life.
One of the characteristic differentiators that bullet ants have is the thoracic horns. They have a pair of blunt horns on the first pair of the thorax. Another highlight is the sharp triangular node in the waist.
Reproduction in bullet ants
Reproduction in bullet ants is similar to the other species in the genus. The queen ant is the center of attention of every ant colony with her sole responsibility in life is to keep reproducing.
These queen ants have a brief mating period during which they mate with many male ants in the colony.
The sperms from the male ants are stored in specialized sacks in their abdomen called spermathecal. The sperms are secured in these sacks and are unable to move unless they open a specific valve. Once opened the sperms pass through her reproductive system fertilizing the eggs.
The queen ant has the ability to determine the sex of their offsprings. Only the fertilized eggs grow to become female ants while the unfertilized eggs become the working class (male ants). The only purpose of a male ant’s life is to forage for food and to fertilize the female ants.
How long do the Bullet ants live? (Bullet ant lifespan)
The average life expectancy of a bullet ant is 90 days. The queen ants may at times live up to a few years. As discussed in the earlier section the colonies of bullet ants are found to fight each other. The defeated colony usually perishes, are eaten by the winners or at the worst left to be eaten by other predators.
The life cycle of a bullet ant
Working with this animal isn’t a walk in the park and scientists only know a little about the reproductive habits of bullet ants.
The queen ants lay eggs which are attended to by the smaller ants in the colony. Bullet ants show complete metamorphosis; i.e. the eggs hatch to larvae which then develops to a fully developed bullet ant.
When researchers observed the bullet ants that were kept in captivity they found these ants laid eggs in the crevices where it undergoes metamorphosis.
But when in their natural habitat the smaller bullet ants that attend to the eggs are found to carry the eggs to the warmest part of the colony indicating that temperature does play a role in their development.
The lifecycle of a bullet ant has 4 stages.
The eggs are oval and small in size which then develops into larva. The larva resembles the structure of a worm with no eyes, hands or legs. Throughout the larval stage, these ants are cleaned and taken care of by the worker ants.
Once these larvae are large enough, they will spin a cocoon around themselves from top to bottom creating a small chamber. It is inside this chamber their body undergoes a major transformation into developing hands, legs, eyes, mandibles, and the stinger.
This entire life cycle can take anywhere between 5 to 10 weeks.
What are the predators that feed on bullet ants?
Though they look large and have a powerful bite they are not the king of the jungle. There are predators and parasites that feed upon the bullet ants.
Their most common predator includes the bullet ants from other colonies who attack each other. The parasitic Phorid flies and entomopathogenic fungi are the other major threats to the bullet ants.
An interesting thing to be noted here is the way the Phorid flies target the bullet ants. After the encounter between 2 colonies, most bullet ants are left seriously injured. The phorid flies lay eggs on these injured ants which slowly kills it.
On average, a bullet ant can nest about 20 phorid fly larvae.
Nest of a bullet ant
At maturity, the queen ant sets out to set up a separate colony. These colonies are mostly found in the bottom of tall trees or vines making it convenient for the worker ants to forage the canopy.
Bullet ant nest can sometimes extend up to 2 feet in depth and have many chambers with a domed roof. In 1983 scientists discovered a bullet ant nest that had 43 chambers underneath!
Social organizations in a Bullet Ant nest
Similar to other ant and bee colonies bullet ants are primitively eusocial. A well-structured internal hierarchy exists in the colony.
The worker ants exhibit division of labor, smaller ants stay inside the nests and attend to the queen while the larger ones stay guard and forage the canopy. Not every bullet ant colony produce winged male ants and virgin female queens, only the mature colony does that.
When under attack the worker ants rush to the entrance of the colony to defend it. An interesting thing about bullet ants is that when their colony is under threat they are found to make a loud buzzing sound together to scare away the predators.
How do bullet ants expand their colony?
During the mating phase, the female ants set out with the male bullet ants in large swarms. This phase is called the nuptial fight phase. After they mate, both the male and female ants lose their wings.
The female ants after mating go off to find a place of her own. Once they find an ideal place to build a nest they dig a place for themselves and lay eggs in them. The first set of eggs are taken care of by the queen ants. These first set of offspring will always be larger bullet ants.
These worker ants are responsible for the expansion of the colony and are primarily tasked with expanding the nests and to move the newer eggs to specialized chambers for hatching.
The second stage in the expansion is the ergonomic stage where the primary focus of the ants will be to expand their colony and their nest. It may take anywhere between a season to 5 years for the colony to develop fully and to enter the reproductive phase again.
Once the second stage is complete the queen ants will produce virgin females which then sets out with other males to mate and this process continues.
How deadly can a bullet ant sting be?
Imagine being shot by a 9mm bullet in close range, how painful do you think it can be? Well, that’s exactly what the sting from a bullet ant can be.
The neurotoxin released by the bullet ant knows as the poneratoxin can affect the synaptic transfer between nerve cells causing a complete shut down in the bitten area.
The 2 species known for their infamous sting are the tarantula wasp and the warrior wasp the pain from which can last less than 5 minutes and 2 hours respectively. Compared to them the sting from a bullet ant can be drastically more in magnitude and can last up to 24 hours.
Being stung by a bullet ant is the last thing that you would want to experience!
Are bullet ants aggressive?
Not really, bullet ants are not aggressive creatures. The sting only when they are threatened or challenged but make no mistake a single sting can make you cry for your life.
When one bullet ant stings, it releases a certain chemical that signals other ants in the vicinity to sting in the same area.
A sting from one ant can itself by excruciatingly painful and the bite from quite a few of them can lay you unconscious and the only thing you’ll be conscious about will be the immense pain that you feel. Nausea, vomiting, uncontrolled shivering & sweating are the other common effects after a bullet ant sting.
Are bullet ants venomous?
Yes, bullet ants are venomous. They produce a neurotoxin called poneratoxin which is a neurotoxic peptide. This peptide component causes the voltage-gated sodium ion channels in skeletal muscles to block synapse transmission in the central nervous system.
This causes excruciating pain temporary paralysis and uncontrollable shaking. The effects of the venom on a human can last for about 24 hours with the first 5 to 6 hours being the peak. The pain is only located in the area of the bite and the venom doesn’t spread to the heart, brain or other parts of the body.
Bullet ant venom is not lethal to humans but it is for the small arthropods and other larvae. This makes poneratoxin an idea bio-insecticide.
Scientists and biologists are intrigued by the excruciating pain caused by the bullet ants that they believe there can be medicinal importance to its venom. To study more about the venom, scientists and researchers capture them and milk their venom similar to how snakes and spiders are milked.
Ritualistic relationships with Bullet ants
Considering their powerful bite and the potential magnitude of pain its quite natural for humans to avoid crossing paths with them. But can you believe that an indigenous tribe “sateré–Mawe” of Brazil purposefully get bitten by the bullet ants as a part of their ritual.
This ritual is conducted as a part of initiating the boys in the tribe to become warriors. According to sateré–Mawe the boys has to be bitten by the bullet ants in order to be fearsome warriors of the jungle.
These bullet ants are sedated using natural sedative leaves. A pair of glove is woven with dry leaves keeping the bullet ants woven along with the glove such that their heads are places inside the glove. Once the bullet ants wake up they are literally trapped in the glove and are provoked.
The boys in the tribe spread charcoal and clay on their hands and then place their hands into the glove and keep it in for about 5 minutes.
One can say that in these 5 minutes the experience the greatest of all pains in the world and most of them pass out. Those who remain conscious join the others along with the elders to dance.
This is not the end, these young men and boys need to repeat this ceremony for almost about 20 times which can take several months to years.
How painful is the sting of a bullet ant?
Ever heard of The Schmidt Pain Scale for Stinging Insects? If you haven’t read on.
The Schmidt Pain Scale for Stinging Insects is a 4 point scale developed by Dr. Justin o Schmidt an entomologist at the Carl Hayden Bee Research Center in Arizona, USA. In his scale, he has ranked the sting of an insect in a 1 to 4 scale with 4 being the most painful.
The sting of a honeybee is rated as a 2. If the sting of a scale 2 is itself painful, consider the sting from a bullet ant that is given a rating of 4+.
Recently Hamish Blake, of the Australian comedy duo Hamish & Andy tried wearing the bullet ant gloves of the Amazon’s Sateré-Mawé tribe. The results were really appalling as seen in the video. The severe pain lasted for almost 4 hours before it began receding and Hamish had to be admitted to a nearby hospital.
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 affect 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.
– Steven Backshall (Naturalist)
First aid to a Bullet Ant sting
Prevention is better than cure, this is the apt line when it comes to first aid to bullet ant stings. There isn’t any effective cure to bullet ant sting. Most bullet ant stings can be prevented by wearing over-the-knee boots and watching for ant colonies before you step foot on them.
When you are near a bullet ant colony you’ll get a special scent released by these ants. Consider it a warning and remain cautious.
Bullets ants aren’t aggressive they sting only when they are provoked. Before they sting they latch on with their powerful mandibles and then land the deadly sting. If you see a bullet ant sneaking over your body swiftly remove it (of course carefully) using tweezers or a twig before it stings.
In the event of a bite, the first thing to do is to remove the ant from the victim. Apply anti-histamine cream to the site of the bite to avoid swelling hydrocortisone cream, and cold compresses may help alleviate swelling and tissue damage at the sting site.
There isn’t any effective cure to immediately relive the pain prescriptions drugs are found to help reduce the pain but they aren’t really effective.
If left untreated, the severe pain from bullet ant stings may subside on their own in 5 to 6 hours. Although the pain may last for a day and uncontrolled shaking may persist much longer.
Can someone die from a Bullet Ant sting?
Huh, not really! Technically it would take 2,250 stings for you to die from the venom of a bullet ant. In fact, scientists claim ponerotoxin to be an almost pure neurotoxin.
“One of the reasons why people use bullet ants for initiation ceremonies is because although it causes extraordinary pain it is not dangerous. There are almost no allergens in it or there isn’t any danger of a histamine reaction to the venom. The toxin is completely flushed out of the body in 24 hours leaving no traces behind”
In fact, ponerotoxin is found to boost adrenaline production in the body which is a medicinal benefit as some claim it to be. There are even some claims that extremely lower doses of ponerotoxin can actually act as a painkiller.
Quite bizarre huh?