The notorious ant Paraponera clavata has many names. Across its natural range, which extends from Central to South America, it is known variously as the bullet ant, the 24-hour ant (for the time it takes for the pain it induces to subside), and the lesser giant hunting ant. In the Tambopata region of southeastern Peru, it is known by the name “isula”.
The bullet ant has a fearsome reputation wherever it occurs. Its sting is said to be the most painful of any insect. The pain can last for up to 24 hours, during which the affected limb or other part of the victim will be subject to temporary paralysis as well as uncontrollable shaking. Symptoms may also include vomiting and fever. After 24 hours, the pain dissipates naturally, leaving the victim with no long term after effects.
In Brazil, the bullet ant is known simply in Portuguese as “formigão-preto”; literally the “big black ant”. And the bullet ant is certainly large. Worker ants can grow to 3 centimeters (1.2 inches) in length. They are reddish-black in color, and have been described as resembling “wingless wasps”. Bullet ant colonies’ queens are a little bigger than the worker ants. The bullet ant’s pincer-like mandibles appear disproportionately large, and its stinger is clearly visible.
Colonies of bullet ants number several hundred individuals. The average lifespan of the worker ant is ninety days. Bullet ants build their nests at the bases of trees. Emerging from these nests, they climb the tree trunk in order to forage in the rainforest canopy. Bullet ants feed on nectar and small arthropods. Worker ants use their large mandibles to carry whatever they have managed to forage back to the nest. Fortunately for human visitors to the rainforest, bullet ants rarely venture onto the forest floor when foraging.
Bullet ants are not aggressive, only stinging when cornered or provoked. When one individual from a colony releases its sting, chemical signals are produced which alert other members of the colony, which will then ready themselves to sting also.
In Brazil, the indigenous Mawé people use the sting from the bullet ant as part of the initiation rites young men must undergo before they are considered warriors. Boys must suffer the stings from bullet ants placed in glove-like baskets worn for several minutes at a time, in a ceremony that each boy is expected to endure several times.
Those who have been unfortunate enough to be stung by a bullet ant confirm that the insect fully deserves its name: the sting really does feel like being hit by a bullet. Victims describe the pain as being instantaneous, and as radiating out from the bite area in continuous excruciating waves. One American entomologist, who was stung on the finger during his research, described the sting as a “tsunami of pain” that flowed out from his finger and receded, in a cycle that continued for twelve hours, during which he was unable to control the violent shaking of his entire arm.
When walking in the forest, bullet ant stings can be avoided by wearing high boots and keeping an eye out for ant colonies. Bites can also occur when bullet ants fall from vegetation; to protect against these and other biting insects, visitors to the rainforest should wear long-sleeved shirts and keep their collars buttoned. If stung, victims should remove the ant from their body as quickly as possible, by brushing it away. While antihistamines and hydrocortisone cream can provide some relief, untreated bullet ant stings will abate after 24 hours.