The Bullet Ant Sting May Be the Worst Pain Known to Man. It Can Also Make You Feel Great.
Over his career, adventurer and naturalist Steve Backshall has endured all sorts of pain, but perhaps the worst came from a creature "no bigger than a fuse."
Meet the bullet ant.
Despite its ferocious traits, the ant is normally quite docile towards humans and other larger animals, reserving the use of its mighty sting solely for defensive purposes. But you won't be thinking about the critter's motives should you find yourself stung. You'll only be thinking about the all-encompassing pain.
"With a bullet ant sting, the pain is throughout your whole body," Backshall described on a recent episode of the BBC's Infinite Monkey Cage. "You start shaking. You start sweating… It goes through your whole body… 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."
The ant's torturous sting is the most painful in existence according to entomologist Justin Schmidt, who's masochistically experienced and chronicled more insect bites and stings than any other human.
With homage to Schmidt, the true experts on bullet ant stings may be the Satere-Mawe of Brazil. As part of their warrior initiation rites, teenage boys are required to adorn gloves filled with bullet ants for ten minutes, and to endure the unbelievable pain with (mostly) calm composure. Boys looking to become men must repeat the feat a total of twenty times. After each trial, the initiates' hands are left blackened, paralyzed, and swollen.
Their disturbing injuries don't last, however. One of the amazing things about the sting of the bullet ant is that there are little to no lasting effects. There are no scientifically documented reports of deaths, perhaps because, according to some estimates, it would take 2,250 stings to kill a 165-pound human. That's a difficult number to reach, even for the Satere-Mawe. Moreover, after twenty-four hours, the injected neurotoxin, called poneratoxin, is entirely flushed from the body.
"It’s an almost completely pure neurotoxin," Backshall said. "One of the reasons why people can use it for tribal initiation ceremonies is because although it causes extraordinary pain, it’s not dangerous. There’s almost no allergens. There’s no danger of a histamine reaction to the venom."
And once the toxin is gone, you feel fantastic, Backshall added.
"You have such a massive overdose of adrenaline that you feel like a god. For a week afterwards I felt like if I leapt off a cliff I could have flown."
An adrenaline boost isn't the only potential benefit of the bullet ant's poneratoxin. It's being explored for use as an insecticide. And ironically, very low doses of the toxin may actually serve to block pain.
The microgram injection from a bullet ant sting isn't quite low enough, however, as Australian comedian Hamish Blake recently found out.