Ant bites can sneak up on you while you’re enjoying a picnic in the park, surrounded by delicious snacks and good company. This is a minor annoyance for you but for the ants, it represents one of their most important defense mechanisms and something without which they could likely not survive.
Ants are much more than mere picnic crashers. These tiny creatures are among the most complex and fascinating beings on Earth. There are over 15,000 known species of ants. All these ants have unique characteristics, habitats, and behaviors. And yes, some of them bite. Ant bites are not usually problematic, but it’s worth being aware of it.
The remarkable ants are also quite crafty. Many of them are equipped with powerful jaws that can break the human skin, and some also have a stinger that they can sting with. So what we usually call “ant bites” are only bites some of the times — quite often, it’s actually an ant sting.
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Do ants bite or sting?
Ants belong to the insect order Hymenoptera, together with bees and wasps, under the family Formicidaceae. They’re very diverse. For instance, some ants have evolved to fly, while others cannot. Meanwhile, some ants bite, other species use stingers, while others have a totally different form of defense mechanism.
A lot of the time what we call ‘ant bites’ are actually ant stings. Of all the species of ants, 71% have the ability to sting whereas others have lost this ability through the course of evolution and instead just spray their venom.
Ants also have jaws. The technical term for these jaws is “mandibles,” and they are surprisingly versatile. When an ant bites, it uses these mandibles to grip its target. Mandibles are important for many insects. However, ants probably utilize them more than any other insect group.
But most ants don’t bite at all — at least not humans. Stinging is more common. A sting, unlike a bite, involves the use of a stinger located in the abdomen. Not all ants sting, but for those that do, such as the infamous fire ant, the sensation can be unpleasantly memorable. It’s like a tiny spark of fire, an electric jolt that shoots through your skin. This is particularly a problem with fire ants.
Fire ant bites? No, fire ant stings
As mentioned, it’s more likely to get an ant sting than an ant bite, but most people still refer to this as ‘ant bites’, although it’s not technically correct. So a lot of the time, when people say they have a ‘fire ant bite’, what they mean is a ‘fire ant sting’.
Ant bites and stings are often mistaken for one another. They are, however, distinct strategies and processes. Ant bites are inflicted through mandibles. Stings are inflicted through a specialized structure known as the stinger.
The stinger is a sharp, pointed organ usually located at the very end of the ant’s body. Think of the sting as an ant’s secret weapon, a hidden needle that can deliver a dose of potent venom when the situation demands it.
Fire ants, in the genus Solenopsis, include 200 species of stinging ants. In the United States, fire ants )specifically red imported fire ant Solenopsis invicta) have become invasive species. They cause problems not just to humans, but often to the local environment as well.
You can distinguish fire ants from other local ants relatively easily. Fire ants have a copper brown head and thorax and a darker abdomen. If you do see fire ants, be warned — they are aggressive and have venomous stings that cause pain.
In order to understand how fire ants deliver their venomous stings, Dr. Adrian Smith from the North Carolina Museum of Natural Science took high-resolution slow-motion videos and images of fire ants’ defense maneuvers. In his ant lab, he stunningly captured how these sneaky insects used their mandibles (snappy jaws) to grab hold of the person’s skin and securely latch on.
More than one way to bite
The odds are ants bit you and you haven’t even felt it — several times. Especially if it’s a small worker ant that does the biting, it’s pretty painless. However, the bigger ones can make you jolt.
Stinging is usually a bit more annoying.
After they latch on, the ants swing their abdomen, where the stinger is located, and use the needle-like part to pierce through your skin. Venom is immediately injected triggering the burning sensation. It is similar to how bees and wasps sting their prey.
Ant stingers are not simple structures. Ant stingers have three main parts: a stylet and two slightly curved lancets. The style is a large solid shaft that is located between the lancets.
When the ant inserts the stinger, the shaft remains in place whereas the lancets move rapidly to pump the venom from the ant’s venom sac to the deeper levels of the skin. The faster the back-and-forth motion, the more venom is pumped and injected.
Ant bite allergic reaction?
Ant’s venom can cause pain to destabilize and kill prey. Ants use it to defend (or in some cases, attack) against humans or other animals, and to defend their colony. In the case of fire ants, its venom is 95% alkaloid and 1% protein.
But a main reason why ant venom can be so painful is formic acid.
Formic acid was first distilled from ants in the 17th century and was the first natural product to be isolated from insects. In fact, the term ‘formic’ came from the Latin word for ant — formica. But formic acid is not unique to ant’s venom. It has been also detected in the defense systems of bees and cnidarians (like jellyfish).
Not everyone reacts badly to formic acid, though. If you are not allergic then consider yourself safe. The ant bit allergic reaction is rarely serious, but it can be painful. It typically consists of localised pain, itch, redness, swelling, and induration. The swelling is usually small in nature and lasts for around a day.
The quantity of ant stings needs to be high to be able to send a person to the hospital. The worse you usually get are pimple-like sores known as pustules. These pustules can be annoying but they eventually heal in a few days.
Photo credits: Alex Wild
Bullet ant bite: the worst pain in the world
Among the numerous ant species worldwide, one stands out in particular: the bullet ant.
Bullet ants (Paraponera clavata) are native to the lowland forests of Central and South America. They’re known for their extraordinarily painful bites. People have likened likened to the pain of a gunshot—hence the name “bullet ant.”
The Schmidt sting pain idex classifies the most painful stings. In the index, biologist Justin Schmidt recorded his own experience with venomous stings — and bullet ants come in first place. In other words, a bullet ant sting is the worst pain known to man.
Schmidt described the sting as “pure, intense, brilliant pain…like walking over flaming charcoal with a three-inch nail embedded in your heel”, while others compare it to being stabbed or burned with a hot poker. aaa
For most ant stings, the problem is formic acid. But bullet ants are loaded with a different bullet called poneratoxin, a paralyzing neurotoxic peptide.
As Schmidt explains:
“Unlike many other insect pain-inducing proteins or peptides, poneratoxin sticks to the pain receptors for a long time and is difficult to deactivate — thus the long-term pain that can last up to 24 hours”.
The bullet ant’s sting is an extreme example of nature’s defense mechanisms. Evolution has shaped this creature to endure in its environment, warding off potential predators with its crippling sting. It’s an awe-inspiring example of the lengths to which nature will go in the name of survival.
|Rank||Ant Species||Schmidt Sting Pain Index||Description|
|1||Bullet Ant (Paraponera clavata)||4.0+||“Pure, intense, brilliant pain. Like walking over flaming charcoal with a 3-inch nail embedded in your heel.”|
|2||Tarantula Hawk Wasp (Pepsis spp.)||4.0||“Blinding, fierce, shockingly electric. A running hair dryer has been dropped into your bubble bath.” Note: This is not an ant but has the same rating as a Bullet Ant.|
|3||Maricopa Harvester Ant (Pogonomyrmex maricopa)||3.0||“After eight unrelenting hours of drilling into that ingrown toenail, you find the drill wedged into the toe.”|
|4||Paper Wasp (Polistes exclamans)||3.0||“Caustic and burning. Distinctly bitter aftertaste. Like spilling a beaker of hydrochloric acid on a paper cut.” Note: This is not an ant but has the same rating as a Maricopa Harvester Ant.|
|5||Red Harvester Ant (Pogonomyrmex barbatus)||3.0||“Bold and unrelenting. Somebody is using a power drill to excavate your ingrown toenail.”|
|6||Florida Harvester Ant (Pogonomyrmex badius)||3.0||“Bold and unrelenting. Somebody is using a drill to excavate your ingrown toenail.”|
|7||Sweat Bee (Halictidae)||1.0||“Light, ephemeral, almost fruity. A tiny spark has singed a single hair on your arm.” Note: This is not an ant but is included for comparison purposes.|
|8||Fire Ant (Solenopsis invicta)||1.2||“Sharp, sudden, mildly alarming. Like walking across a shag carpet and reaching for the light switch.”|
Despite the pain they can inflict, bullet ants play a crucial role in their ecosystems. As predators of small arthropods and nectar feeders, they contribute to the delicate balance of the rainforest. But bullet ants are not pure predators — they also eat nectar, sap, and other plants.
So then why are bullet ants loaded with much more powerful stings compared to other species? It all boils down to defense. First of all, bullet ants are among the largest ant species, measuring from about 1 to 1.5 inches in length. This large size for an ant makes them conspicuous to predators as they scamper for food around trees.
Unlike many insects that can fly or jump when attacked, bullet ants have no real options. Their only option is to hold their ground or counterattack. As a result, their best strategy is to punch extremely painful and toxic stings that would debilitate the opponent.
With its no-mercy kind of sting, you would not want to get close to a bullet ant. However, in certain indigenous cultures like the Satere-Mawe of the Amazon region of Brazil, bullet ants hold cultural significance and are used in coming-of-age and initiation rituals. Young boys must endure the pain of the sting without showing signs of pain and weakness to prove their bravery, strength, and endurance. Colony of bullet ants. Photo credits: myrmecophil/ iNaturalist
In fact, ants will bite and sting when they are hunting or they feel threatened. They wouldn’t hunt something as big as a human, so they’re most likely to bite you when they feel threatened. Don’t want to get bitten? Make sure you’re not threatening the ants.
Ant bites are a small price to pay for ants
Ants are essential to our ecosystem, providing a variety of services that are crucial to our survival. From soil aeration, to seed dispersal, to breaking down organic material, and even controlling other pests, they are an integral part of our world. The power of their bite or sting, while at times a nuisance to us, is a remarkable example of the lengths that nature will go to protect itself.
Despite the sometimes painful reminders they can deliver through their bites or stings, it is essential to remember that ants are not our enemies. If anything, their actions are a defensive mechanism, a reaction to a perceived threat. We would be wise to understand this message, stepping lightly on the ground they walk upon, respecting their homes, and marveling at the tiny but mighty creatures that share our planet.
Depending on the species, ants can both bite and sting. Some species of ants have mandibles that they use to bite and defend themselves, while others have a stinger at the end of their abdomen that they use to inject venom into their prey or enemies.
People may react differently to ant venom depending on its chemical component. It’s important to take precautions and be aware that ants can bite. But ultimately, this should be a minor problem. If you pay attention, you can reduce the likelihood of getting bitten or stung by ants and avoid the discomfort and inconvenience that come with it. If you are worried about an allergy or painful bite or sting, please consult a physician.