In Costa Rica they call them Hormigas bala – Bullet ants – because of the intense pain of their sting, classified as the most painful in the world (see Schmidt Sting Pain Index). These large ants, who build colonies at the foot of trees and forage in forest canopies, are not aggressive, but use the sting mainly as a defence. The venom they inject is not intended to paralyse prey, like the neurotoxins used by snakes for example, but are intended to deter potential predators.
Bullet ants are also found in Brazil, where they are used in initiation rites among indigenous people. Ants are collected and woven into gloves, stings on the inside. The ritual involves wearing the gloves for 10 minutes and enduring the subsequent agony. Steve Backshall, an adventurer-naturalist whose job is to put himself into perilous and extremely uncomfortable situations while being filmed, underwent the initiation rite. “If there’d been a machete to hand, I’d have chopped off my arms to escape the pain,” he wrote later. You can see his experience here.
There must be a business opportunity in this for the Satere-Mawe people featured in the video, with tourists paying good money to prove themselves, rather like those who flock to Pamplona to run with the bulls.
The Schmidt Sting Pain Index is a bizarre pain scale which classifies the relative pain caused by different Hymenopteran stings (bees, wasp and ants). It was invented by the eccentric Justin O. Schmidt, an entomologist at the Carl Hayden Bee Research Center. Schmidt has published a number of papers on the subject, claims to have been stung by the majority of stinging Hymenoptera, and appears to take a masochitic delight in being stung, describing each one like a fine wine.
• 1.0 Sweat bee: Light, ephemeral, almost fruity. A tiny spark has singed a single hair on your arm.
• 1.2 Fire ant: Sharp, sudden, mildly alarming. Like walking across a shag carpet and reaching for the light switch.
• 1.8 Bullhorn acacia ant: A rare, piercing, elevated sort of pain. Someone has fired a staple into your cheek.
• 2.0 Bald-faced hornet: Rich, hearty, slightly crunchy. Similar to getting your hand smashed in a revolving door.
• 2.0 Yellowjacket: Hot and smoky, almost irreverent. Imagine W. C. Fields extinguishing a cigar on your tongue.
• 2.0 Honey bee and european hornet: Like a match head that flips off and burns on your skin.
• 3.0 Red harvester ant: Bold and unrelenting. Somebody is using a drill to excavate your ingrown toenail.
• 3.0 Paper wasp: Caustic and burning. Distinctly bitter aftertaste. Like spilling a beaker of hydrochloric acid on a paper cut.
• 4.0 Pepsis wasp: Blinding, fierce, shockingly electric. A running hair drier has been dropped into your bubble bath.
• 4.0+ Bullet ant: Pure, intense, brilliant pain. Like fire-walking over flaming charcoal with a 3-inch rusty nail in your heel.
His original paper in 1984 was an attempt to systematize and compare the hemolytic properties of insect venoms. The index contained in the paper started from 0 for stings that are completely ineffective against humans, progressed through 2, a familiar pain such as a common bee or wasp sting, and finished at 4 for the most painful stings. In the conclusion, some descriptions of the most painful examples were given, e.g.: “Paraponera clavata stings induced immediate, excruciating pain and numbness to pencil-point pressure, as well as trembling in the form of a totally uncontrollable urge to shake the affected part.”