This is the awesome book (The Sting of the Wild) that I found that is full of amazing information. Clicking on the link takes you to Amazon and if you make a purchase then Koaw Nature receives a small commission and I THANK YOU VERY MUCH!
By Koaw – June, 2017
Let’s learn about harvester ants, their extreme venom, and the severe, unique pain they cause within humans! Check out my field testing of these venomous stings on YouTube.
Harvester ants have the most potent venom of any genus of insects on the planet, where Pogonomyrmex maricopa is the most venomous species within the genus, possessing venom about 20x more toxic than honey bee venom and 35x more potent than western diamondback rattlesnake venom.
These are the ants of Apache legends, where supposedly the tribes abandoned their enemies on the mounds of harvester ant to suffer until death. (However, there is no verifiable evidence confirming the legends.)
My first research on the harvester ant actually began when I was walking past a colony and leaned over to film for a few moments. The initially pain was nothing compared to what soon followed, of which then carried on for hours—and that led me to do some investigating.
Among all my research, I found a newly published book called The Sting of the Wild by Dr. Justin Schmidt, an entomologist (a biologist of insects), who also has a formal education in chemistry, and who has extensively studied and published about harvester ants. The book also describes in detail the type and level of pain he has experienced from numerous insect stings over his long career. There couldn’t be a more fitting text to find!
For comparison, Dr. Schimdt provides a scale of 1-4 pain levels; he places the sting of fire ants—yes, the name speaks for itself—at a level 1. The incredible sting of the western honey bee receives a level 2, and the three species of harvester ants he describes each get a level 3, where he so poetically describes the sting as “Bold and unrelenting. Somebody is using a power drill to excavate your ingrown toenail.” Only three insects he describes receive a level 4, one of which being the infamous bullet ant.
Here in Colorado, the site of my field testing, there are at least five species of harvester ants and apparently queens often seek to mate with other species as well as their own, ergo hybrid species do occur. It was simple to determine that I was stung by a harvester ant after analyzing the symptoms I experienced from the unique venom.
As it turns out, harvester ant venom is very different from other ants and other insects. For starters, the cocktail of enzymes cause the duration of pain to range from 4-12 hours (depending on the species injecting the venom and many other variables like time of day, how much venom was injected, the age of the insect, etc..) Unlike the honey bee, where the intense pain lasts only a few minutes and is mostly localized, the harvester ant venom progressively gets more painful and spreads from the injection area. Another tell-tale clue of harvester ant venom is the localized sweating around the injection site as well as erected hairs.
The ants are capable of biting with their large mandibles, but the venom is injected via the stinger. Oh yeah, they can sting multiple times as they hold firm to their target with their mandibles and spin their abdomen, stinging during the rotation.
Here's a Nifty Fact:
Only the females are capable of stinging. Why? Trace the evolution of the stinger back in time and it was first used as an ovipositor, or an egg-laying device. Some males of certain insect species do have pseudostingers, or fake stingers, which are just hardened genitalia that are incapable of releasing venom.
Harvester ants get their name because they actively gather seeds as a food source. However, they are generalists. They are scavengers of dead creatures and seeds but also can be active predators, usually upon other insects.
The Venom Components
The lethal component of harvester ant venom is still being isolated and awaiting proper description, but we do know a fair deal about some of the venom’s other properties.
In the Florida harvester ant, there are phospholipases, A1 & B, that breakdown phospholipids in cell membranes which in turn releases lipid lysolecithin (lysophosphatidylcholine) and other bits, destroying the cell membrane and inducing pain.
Barbatolysin is a polypeptide of 34 amino acids that is also a culprit of inducing pain.
Hyaluronidase works as a “meat tenderizer” and weakens the skin to allow transit of more venom into the body.
Esterase and acid phosphatase are other enzymes working to dismantle other molecules in the body, at the same time increasing the other effects of the venom.
The hemolytic venom also breaks down red blood cells, disrupting oxygen transport, and messing with the kidneys’ ability to filter the blood.
The most prominent effect of the harvester ant venom is its neurotoxicity. The venom targets nerves in the skin, then spreading to the spinal cord and to the brain—this is definitely not pleasurable to experience. (Although not emphasized in other research, I felt slightly cloudy in the brain for short durations after each of my four trials visiting and receiving stings for harvester ants.)
Small vertebrates, like mice, cannot endure too many stings from harvester ants without succumbing to death. As humans, we have an advantage—we are larger, and our thick skin slows the spreading of venom. Also, the harvester ants are injecting very small volumes of venom compared to what a rattlesnake could inject. Humans can endure many stings without proving their mortality. If someone had a severe systemic allergy then it may only take a small number of stings from a harvester ant to meet an early death.
What to do if stung by a harvester ant?
First off, I am not a medical doctor and INSIST THAT YOU SEEK PROFESSIONAL MEDICAL ADVICE.
I will however relay some practical information. Though unlikely, harvester ant stings can result in death. For a normal person (one not susceptible to severe system allergic reactions), hundreds of stings can be endured without death. But keep in mind that everyone reacts differently to different venom, and there are many species of harvester ants with separate cocktails of venom.
Antihistamines will likely help with the itching. Cool water and aloe skin soothers will help alleviate an amount of discomfort around the wound.
Also keep in mind that other bacteria (not part of the venom) may be inserted into your body during a sting. This could potentially lead to an infection. Cleaning the injection site and removing any remaining stingers is practical. Try not to squeeze the stingers with tweezers, as that may inject any remaining venom into the injection site.
Avoid itching and scratching the injection sites, as that could lead to more itching and possible infections.
Main Reference for this Article: Schmidt, J. O. (2016). The Sting of the Wild. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
AntWeb. (2017, June). Retrieved from http://www.antweb.org
Center for Disease Control. (2017, June). Insects and Scorpions. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/insects/
Simon, S., & Downey, W. (2012). Deadly Ants. Courier Corporation.