Please Don’t Mess with Bullet Ants

An unassuming but frightfully armed bullet ant from the EOL Learning and Education Group’s Flickr page

As both a Marvel and ant enthusiast, I’m a huge fan of Ant-Man. I love the movie’s humor and fantastic visual effects, but one of my favorite aspects has to be the way the protagonists utilize the strengths of different ant species: Scott Lang (Ant-Man) flies around on carpenter ant swarmers, rides a raft of fire ants, and of course incapacitates foes with the incredibly painful stings of bullet ants. I’d actually never heard of bullet ants before watching this movie, so I was curious to see whether or not those intimidating insects actually existed.

They do, hence this post. Although it would be interesting to do a post on fictional arthropods in the future, today is not that day.

As mentioned in the movie, bullet ants are ranked on the Schmidt Pain Index as having the most painful sting of any insect, sharing the high ranking of 4 with the infamous tarantula hawk wasp and warrior wasp. While each of these insects can cause downright agony, what sets them apart is the duration of the pain they inflict.

The warrior wasp’s sting dissipates after a couple hours, and you’d only have to endure that of the tarantula hawk wasp for about five minutes. However, the bullet ant packs a punch that torments its poor victims for up to 24 hours, hence it’s nickname “the 24-hour ant” in Venezuela. Better yet, a bullet ant will release chemicals when it stings that alert more ants to attack as well, exponentially increasing the victim’s suffering. Unsurprisingly, the bullet ant’s sting has been compared to the sensation of being shot, so we’ve stumbled across another surprisingly well-named arthropod. The stings are fortunately not fatal, but they do cause nausea, temporary paralysis, and involuntary shaking, among other symptoms. No, thank you.

If you live in the rainforest regions of Central America or South America, be sure to stay aware of your surroundings (heh, like you need me to tell you that – I don’t know for sure who has the scariest arthropods, but it’s definitely the American rainforests or Australia). Bullet ants build their colonies at the bases of trees but may climb high into the foliage in search of food, so leaning absentmindedly against the wrong tree trunk could be quite painful.

Fortunately, these terrifying ants don’t seek out people intentionally and won’t attack as long as they’re left alone. They’d actually prefer to spend their days sipping nectar, munching on smaller insects, and dealing with more pressing matters like fending off parasitic phorid flies and, well, each other. Like many ant species, bullet ants often go to war with other ant colonies.

Aside from inducing excruciating pain, bullet ants are also known for being some of the world’s biggest ants at about 1.2 inches in length. This is only a fraction smaller than the world’s largest ants, of the genus Dinoponera, which average about 1.5 inches. Interestingly, while the queen ant is typically much larger than the other ants in her colony, queen bullet ants are relatively similar in size to their workers. Thank goodness – with the size of normal bullet ants being what it is, their queen could have been hamster sized or something terrifying like that if they outgrew their subjects like normal.

…Okay, probably they probably wouldn’t be that big, but I’m sure their stature would still have been unsettling for such an already formidable insect. Yeesh.

You know what insect needs to enter the MCU in the next Ant-Man and the Wasp movie? Panda ants. Panda ants aren’t really true ants but rather an adorable species of wasp whose females are wingless (but not stingless) and bear markings that make them resemble panda bears. However, now that the Wasp has made her official movie debut, I think a case can be made for these cuddly insects (not actually cuddly, will sting you, do not touch) to join in on the action.

Imagine this: a tiny superhero riding into battle on the back of a mulch lobster, commanding an army of panda ants. Who wouldn’t want to watch that movie?

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