The World’s Most Painful Insect Sting

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One of these three creatures is thought to possess the world’s most painful insect sting: there’s an ant that forages in rainforest canopies, a bee that protects a hive of delectable honey, and a wasp that paralyzes tarantulas. So which has the nastiest sting? Justin Schmidt describes and ranks the pain inflicted by each insect.

Table of Contents

Insect Stings

Welcome to It Hurts!

The Sting Pain Index

Have you ever wondered which insect has the world’s most painful sting? Could it be the ant that lives in rainforest canopies, the bee that protects its honey, or the wasp that paralyzes tarantulas? Let’s find out!

Insect venoms contain a range of compounds that are designed to cause unpleasant sensations and even disrupt bodily functions. Entomologist Justin O. Schmidt created a sting pain index that ranks the pain caused by around 100 insect stings.

The Western Honeybee’s Sting

Out of our three contenders, one stands out as the most painful. First, let’s consider the Western honeybee’s sting. According to Schmidt, it feels like “a flaming match head has landed on your arm and is quenched first with lye and then sulfuric acid.” This pain is caused by venom that is packed with a pain-causing peptide called “melittin” and enzymes that soften flesh and help disperse the venom. These enzymes can also cause allergic reactions and even lead to fluid buildup in the lungs. Worker honeybees have barbed stingers that can become stuck in their victims, which means they usually can’t sting without leaving part of their bodies behind and ultimately dying. Since only the queen bee has the ability to reproduce, a worker bee’s self-sacrifice helps ensure that the colony, and their genes, will survive. Before they die, they release an alarm pheromone that activates a mass attack and often targets vulnerable areas on their victim’s body.

The Tarantula Hawk Wasp’s Sting

According to Schmidt, the tarantula hawk wasp’s sting is “blinding, fierce, shockingly electric… A bolt out of the heavens. Lie down and scream.” The sensation might only last five minutes for humans, but it leaves tarantulas, the wasp’s preferred target, permanently paralyzed. After stinging the tarantula and aiming for a crucial bundle of nerves, the wasp lays an egg on the immobilized spider. Once the egg hatches, the wasp’s larva spends its early days feeding on the tarantula’s body, consuming it alive. Aside from paralyzing the tarantula, the wasp’s sting doesn’t seem to cause any further harm. This helps preserve the spider as fresh food for the wasp’s offspring.

The Bullet Ant’s Sting

The bullet ant, which lives in rainforests, has a sting that causes “pure, intense, brilliant pain. Like walking over a flaming bed of charcoal with a 3-inch nail embedded in your heel,” according to Schmidt. This pain can last for more than 12 hours. It is caused by a neurotoxic peptide called poneratoxin that our bodies struggle to break down. In addition to the pain, poneratoxin can also cause trembling, cold sweats, nausea, vomiting, and abnormal heartbeat. The bullet ant is actually the insect with the most painful sting. It is thought that they may have evolved such an excruciating defense because they forage in rainforest canopies where they are vulnerable to predators looking for a protein-rich meal. They can’t simply jump or fly away, so perhaps they are better off with this reliable, if off-putting, weapon.

Final Thoughts

The tarantula hawk wasp’s formidable sting is the second most painful on Schmidt’s scale. It is likely the reason this wasp has no known predators. Honeybee stings rank in the middle of the pain scale. However, when many bees sting at the same time, what might have been manageable at first can become dangerous. In fact, insect stings have helped enable the evolution of complex colonies that would otherwise be an easy target for predators. Some stinging insects are more aggressive than others, but most of the time, they only sting when provoked.

So there you have it, the bullet ant takes the top spot for the most painful insect sting, followed by the tarantula hawk wasp, and the honeybee in the middle. While insect stings can be unpleasant and even dangerous, it’s important to remember that most insects only sting as a defense mechanism when they feel threatened. So it’s best to leave them alone and avoid getting stung.

New Vocabulary

variable (adjective) – likely to change or vary
Example: The weather forecast is predicting variable temperatures for the next week.

incite (verb) – to stir up or encourage
Example: The politician’s inflammatory speech incited violence in the crowd.

unsavory (adjective) – unpleasant or distasteful
Example: The food at the restaurant had an unsavory smell that made me lose my appetite.

compromise (verb) – to weaken or damage
Example: The company’s financial difficulties have compromised its ability to pay its employees on time.

cocktail (noun) – a mixture of different things
Example: The bartender mixed up a special cocktail for the happy couple’s anniversary.

peptide (noun) – a small protein
Example: The researchers discovered a new peptide that has the potential to treat cancer.

enzymes (noun) – a substance produced by a living organism that acts as a catalyst to bring about a specific chemical reaction
Example: The digestive system uses enzymes to break down food into nutrients that the body can use.

disperse (verb) – to spread out or scatter
Example: The crowd dispersed after the concert ended.

allergic (adjective) – having an abnormal immune response to a substance
Example: Some people are allergic to peanuts and can have a severe reaction if they eat them.

fluid (noun) – a substance that flows and can take the shape of its container
Example: The doctor checked the patient’s fluid levels to determine if they were dehydrated.

barbed (adjective) – having a sharp projection
Example: The fishhook was barbed to prevent it from slipping out of the fish’s mouth.

burrow (verb) – to make a hole or tunnel, especially in the ground
Example: The gophers were burrowing under the garden and causing damage to the plants.

prevail (verb) – to be successful or dominant
Example: Despite facing many challenges, the team was able to prevail and win the championship.

pheromone (noun) – a chemical substance produced and released into the environment by an animal, especially a mammal or an insect, affecting the behavior or physiology of others of its species
Example: The pheromones produced by the male moth attracted females for mating.

formidable (adjective) – impressive or intimidating
Example: The mountain climber faced a formidable challenge when attempting to reach the summit.

agony (noun) – intense physical or mental suffering
Example: The patient was in agony after breaking her leg in the accident.

neurotoxic (adjective) – poisonous to nerve tissue
Example: The snake’s venom is neurotoxic and can cause paralysis if not treated quickly.

tremble (verb) – to shake slightly and uncontrollably, often as a result of fear, weakness, or excitement
Example: The young actress couldn’t help but tremble as she stepped on stage for the first time.

cold sweat (noun) – sweat produced in response to fear or anxiety
Example: The criminal broke into a cold sweat when the police arrived at the scene.

abnormal (adjective) – not normal or usual
Example: The patient’s blood pressure was abnormal and required further testing.

Discussion Questions Worksheet

Answer Examples

  1. Factors that might contribute to the pain caused by an insect sting include the chemical composition of the venom, the size and shape of the stinger, and the location of the sting on the body.
  2. An insect that stings for defense typically does so when it feels threatened, while an insect that stings for prey does so to subdue and consume its target.
  3. One example of an insect that has evolved a unique stinging ability for survival is the tarantula hawk wasp, which uses its extremely painful sting to paralyze tarantulas and lay its eggs on them.
  4. Insects’ stinging behaviors and the pain they cause can impact their relationships with other species by deterring predators and helping to ensure the survival of the insect and its offspring.
  5. Insects’ stinging behaviors and the chemicals in their venom serve as a form of chemical communication by warning other insects or animals to stay away and signaling to members of the same species that danger is present.