Stinging insects are not exactly the most popular living creatures in the world. Most people’s reaction to them is to swat them or run away. All it takes is one bee sting to know you don’t want to have that experience again! However, stinging insects like bees, wasps, and ants are really important to the natural balance of the ecosystem.
They pollinate flowers as they move from one plant to another. Many plants would not be able to reproduce without them. Additionally, they’re a major food source for other insects, birds, reptiles, and mammals. Conversely, they feed on many insects themselves, several of which can damage crops and plants. Lastly, they indicate how healthy the ecosystem is. Changes in their populations or behavior can be an early warning sign of environmental problems.
That’s all well and good, but still, none of us wants to get on the wrong end of their stingers! Read on to discover our picks for 10 of the most painful insect stings in the world. We’ll also cover what to do if you get stung, and how to get rid of stinging insects.
1. Bullet Ant
The bullet ant is at the top of nearly every expert’s list as the most painful of all insect stings. Native to Central and South America, this is one of the largest ant species in the world. It reaches a length of 1.2 inches. People who have experienced its sting say it feels like a gunshot, hence its name. Waves of burning, excruciating pain can last for 24 hours and get even more painful over time. In addition to sheer agony, victims can experience fever, nausea, trembling, and cardiac arrhythmia.
Fortunately, they are generally not considered an aggressive species. However, when they do sting, they release a chemical that signals all their friends to sting as well. Believe it or not, one Brazilian tribe uses these ants as a rite of passage for teenage boys. Young men prove their manhood by wearing a glove with bullet ants affixed, stingers pointed inward. The goal is to avoid showing any sign of pain. What do you think? Want to join the tribe?
2. Tarantula Hawk
The tarantula hawk is an enormous wasp, reaching up to 2 inches long. They are indigenous to warm, humid climates in some parts of the Americas and Asia. These are really colorful creatures, coming in beautiful shades of blue, purple, or red, which gives them an aesthetic appeal. Don’t be mistaken, though, these are serious predators. They feed on a lot of different insects, including tarantulas that are eight times bigger than them! To accomplish this, the tarantula hawk stings the spider, paralyzing it with venom before dragging it back to its nest. Sounds scary, but they are not aggressive toward humans unless provoked. If you make that mistake, you could get a powerful sting that’s been described as similar to an electric shock. The pain from this can last several agonizing hours. You won’t make that mistake twice, that’s for sure.
3. Warrior Wasp
The warrior wasp is an aggressive, territorial paper wasp species found in tropical parts of South America. It gets its name from a fear-inducing practice. When the nest is threatened, the whole hive will beat their wings in rhythm, sounding remarkably like marching troops. Warrior wasps grow up to an inch long and have powerful jaws and a potent sting. Their venom contains a chemical called poneratoxin, which produces severe shooting pain and swelling. People stung by this species often require medical attention, especially as these wasps often defend their nest as a terrifying swarm.
4. Velvet Ant
Velvet ants are not really ants at all. They are colorful wingless female wasps with black bodies covered in soft-looking red, yellow, orange, or brown hairs. If you live in the southern or Southwestern United States, you’re most likely to see one when it emerges from its burrow to seek a mate. Some people have described the velvet ant as “cuddly” looking. You might be tempted to tough it, but that would be a mistake. The sting is not toxic to any mammal but causes intense pain likened to being stabbed or hit with shrapnel.
Velvet ants are also called “cow killers.” This name is an exaggeration, as their sting cannot literally kill a cow. But legends from the Old West tell of cows stepping in a nest and of cow stings getting infested with maggots. Deadly or not, you don’t want to mess with this ant-that-is-a-wasp.
5. Paper Wasp
There are over 1,000 species of paper wasps found all over the world. Paper wasps get their name from the nests they build out of saliva and wood fibers. They mold these into thin paper-like layers. Undisturbed, their nests can get huge and house colonies of over 200 wasps. They are often found in trees and shrubs in the wild. However, paper wasps also form nests under eaves and in the attics of houses and other structures.
They are generally not aggressive, but when they feel threatened, the entire hive can attack en masse. Their stings that have been described as “a drop of superheated frying oil” dripped on your skin. Although the sting is not highly toxic, it may produce burning pain, swelling, redness, and itching that lasts for hours.
6. Florida Harvester Ant
The term “harvester ant” applies to any ant species that gathers seeds or mushrooms and stores them in granary chambers as food for the colony. This activity can be very beneficial to the ecosystem because it disburses and plants seeds and aerates the soil. Harvester ants are native to North America. However, the only species found east of the Mississippi River is the Florida harvester ant. Their stings are reputed to be one of the most painful of any ant species in the world. The pain lasts several hours, causing swelling and a watery, oozy secretion from the site of the sting.
7. Fire Ant
Fire ants are a type of stinging ant indigenous to South America. But it has spread to many other parts of the world (including North America, Europe, Asia, and Australia) through international trade and travel. In the United States, they are prevalent in southern and southwestern states. They are typically found in a variety of habitats, including forests, grasslands, and agricultural areas. And they are often active in and around homes. Because of their aggressive behavior and proximity to people, they are considered a major pest.
The sting of a fire ant is typically very painful, with a sharp sensation that can last for several hours. Some people have described the pain as feeling like a burn or a hot poker. The venom of a fire ant contains a chemical called solenopsin, which can cause irritation and inflammation. Oh, and if by chance you live on an island, don’t think being surrounded by water will keep you safe. Fire ants can link their bodies together to make massive floating chainss to cross bodies of water!
8. Africanized Honeybee
Africanized honeybees, also known as “killer bees,” are the unfortunate result of a science experiment gone dreadfully wrong. In the 1950s, researchers brought hardy, aggressive African honeybees to Brazil to use in experimental breeding programs. Disastrously, some escaped and began interbreeding with local populations of more docile European honeybees. The hybrid species went on to spread across South and Central America and into the Southwestern and Southern United States.
Africanized honeybees are highly aggressive, swarming, pursuing, and relentlessly stinging people or animals that get near their nests. Their sting itself is not particularly toxic, but it is sharp and painful. Large numbers of stings can cause life-threatening physiological reactions. Locations of nests should be reported to professionals for removal, as this species is a danger to people and animals in their range.
9. Japanese Giant Hornet
The Japanese giant hornet, also known as the Asian giant hornet, is the largest hornet in the world. Amazingly, it is 1.75 inches long and has a wingspan of a whopping 3 inches! It is indigenous only to East Asia and the Russian Far East. However, from 2019-2021 a few specimens began to appear in the Pacific Northwest of the United States and Canada. This was likely the result of international travel and trade. Researchers found no reports of them the following year, so they hoped this meant eradication efforts had been successful. But with trade and travel drastically reduced during the COVID-19 pandemic, their disappearance may only be temporary. It’s possible that more stowaways will find their way to the Western Hemisphere with the resumption of normal international commerce.
This sting of the Japanese giant hornet is extraordinarily painful, producing a sharp burning sensation that can last for hours. Its venom contains mandaratoxin, which damages the tissue around the sting site and produces swelling, redness, and itching. The pain of the sting and the body’s reaction to it can produce nausea in some unfortunate people.
Yellowjacket is a term for various small predatory wasp species in North America. They are characteristically black and yellow, often in alternating bands, and they have a unique way of flying rapidly side-to-side before landing. They may build nests in the ground, in trees, or in hidden protected places such as barns or attics. Even though they helpfully prey on some harmful insect species, they also like many of the same foods humans do. It’s not unusual to find yellow jackets hovering around trashcans or attempting to sample your soda on a hot summer day.
Yellowjacket stings are not as painful as the other insects on our list, but they are still more than enough to ruin a perfectly good day, especially if you are attacked by multiple individuals. Their stings produce a burning and itching sensation that can last a couple of hours and can produce allergic reactions in some people.
They have been described as having an “angry disposition” because of their habit of going on the attack unprovoked and pursuing people even when they try to steer clear of them. Unlike bees, whose stingers detach from their bodies after stinging, yellowjackets keep their stingers and can sting their victim multiple times, a capability they readily use. Yellowjackets can also bite, but it is not clear whether they use that ability against humans or only when feeding. So next time you see something buzzing around a public trashcan, you might just want to cross the street.
What to Do if You Get Stung
If you are stung by an insect, here are a few steps you can take to manage the side effects:
- Remove the stinger: If the stinger is still in the skin, scrape it out with a sanitized fingernail, credit card, or knife. Don’t squeeze it because this will inject more venom into the wound.
- Wash the area: Clean the site of the sting with soap and water to help prevent infection.
- Apply a cold pack: Ice or a cold pack will help reduce the swelling and numb the pain in the area of the sting.
- Take pain medication: An over-the-counter pain medication taken orally, or a cream that contains hydrocortisone or another anti-inflammatory ingredient applied topically, can help reduce the throbbing pain of a sting.
- Watch for signs of an allergic reaction: If you experience difficulty breathing, chest tightness, hives, or swelling of the face, lips, or tongue, seek medical attention immediately.
- Watch for signs of infection: Continuing redness, swelling, or pus may signal an infection. Consult a healthcare professional who will decide whether a round of antibiotics is necessary.
How Can You Prevent Insect Stings?
No one wants stinging insects in or near their property or public areas where people might get hurt. Here are some preventative measures you can take before they become a problem:
- Remove potential food sources from the property. Fruit that has fallen from trees, hummingbird feeders, and even pet food can all attract a variety of pests.
- When eating outdoors, cover food and drinks and put away leftovers and dirty dishes as soon as possible.
- Seal outdoor trash cans and compost piles. Rotting food, especially meats and sweets, are like an all-you-can-eat buffet to wasps and yellowjackets.
- Eliminate entrances to your home. Closed doors and windows are only half the battle. Be sure even the smallest of cracks and crevices are sealed to prevent wasps from entering your home.
- Fill any holes in the ground. This is key in preventing in-ground nests. If you have a large property, prioritize the areas closest to your home that are most often frequented by people and pets.
How Can You Remove Stinging Insects?
If you already have a problem with individual stinging insects or nests on your property, here are some possible ways to remove them:
- Traps: You can find a variety of traps for insects, such as sticky traps, pheromone traps, and bait traps.
- Vacuum: An individual insect might be captured using a vacuum cleaner, especially if it is a slow-moving species. Seal up and dispose of the vacuum back to prevent the still-alive insect from finding its way back out for revenge.
- Natural remedies: Peppermint oil, citrus oil, and other natural products are ecologically friendly ways to repel insects. These concentrates can be mixed with water and sprayed in areas frequented by insects.
- Insecticides: These can be highly effective, but they can also be toxic to humans and pets, particularly in poorly ventilated spaces. Used excessively in large areas, they can also have a lasting negative environmental impact.
- Professional pest control: If you are dealing with an entire nest or if you are highly allergic, it is best to hire a professional pest control company. They will have the knowledge, experience, and equipment needed to remove the insects safely, effectively, and in the most ecologically responsible way.
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