7 of the Most Painful Insect Stings

Chances are, you’ve probably been stung by a bee or a wasp at some point in your life. Stings from your garden variety bee or wasp are definitely somewhat painful but aren’t debilitating in the slightest. However, the same can’t be said for some other animals in the insect kingdom.

In all likelihood, if you’re reading this then you probably don’t live anywhere near any of the insects on this list, so there’s relatively little danger that you’ll encounter one of this creepy crawlies yourself. If you do find yourself in a place where these bugs can be found, however, make sure to watch your step.

In this article, we’ll be covering seven of the most painful insect stings and sharing them with you:

  • General information on each insect
  • What each insect uses their stings for
  • How long the pain from each sting lasts
  • How to treat a sting from each of these insects
  • And more!

7. Fire Ant

  • Not the most painful sting, but encountering fire ants will almost certainly leave you with multiple stings
  • Pain doesn’t last very long but itching can persist for a long while after

There are actually several species of fire ants that exist in the world, although all of them are fairly similar. Unfortunately, if you live in the southern States, there’s a good chance you’ll end up encountering a fire ant colony at some point.

The fire ants that live in the States are actually an invasive species and are commonly referred to as the red imported fire ant or the RIFA.

These fire ants are native to South America and likely managed to enter the States by hiding inside shipping containers. RIFAs can also be found in Australia, Taiwan, and China.

Like other stinging ants, fire ants use their stings as a defense mechanism. If the ants sense that someone or something is too close to their mound, they immediately begin swarming the intruder, biting and stinging at any exposed skin they can find. 

Compared to the other insects on our list, fire ant stings aren’t all that painful; the sting of a fire ant is described as a very short-lived but relatively intense burning pain, followed by itching that can last for a few days.

The real danger of fire ants, however, is that you’re pretty much guaranteed to be stung multiple times if you encounter them. Fortunately, fire ant stings don’t require any special treatment and heal on their own after a few days.

If you’re looking to get some extra relief from fire ant stings, though, you can try using a cold compress, hydrocortisone cream, or an antihistamine.

6. Paper Wasp

  • One of the more common wasp types you’ll find in North America
  • Paper wasps are not aggressive but pack a fairly painful sting that still makes them dangerous

Like fire ants, there are actually many species of wasps that fall under the umbrella of paper wasps. Paper wasps get their name from the fact that they make their nests from chewed-up wood fibers, which they mix with their saliva to form a paper-like substance.

Various types of paper wasps can be found throughout the world, and there are 22 species of paper wasps that live in North America alone.

Appearance-wise, most paper wasp species are about an inch long when fully grown, and come in a variety of colors, including yellow, orange, dark red, and reddish-brown.

Unlike other wasps, which can be a lot more aggressive when they’re approached, paper wasps are relatively docile and will only sting if they feel like there is a direct threat to either themselves or their nest.

However, compared to more common yellow jackets, paper wasp stings can be a lot more painful. The good news is that the pain from a paper wasp sting doesn’t last all that long, and unless you have an allergy to insect stings, there’s no chance that a paper wasp sting will kill you.

After the initial pain fades, however, you may have some residual soreness or itchiness that lasts for a day or two afterward. While paper wasps aren’t the most dangerous insects, it’s definitely a safety hazard to live in proximity to a nest.

If you discover a paper wasp nest on your property, you should probably get in touch with a pest control company and have the nest removed.

5. Harvester Ant

  • Often mistaken for fire ants, but harvester ants have a more painful sting
  • Harvester ants attack by simultaneously biting and stinging their victims 

Once again, the name “harvester ant” can actually refer to multiple species with similar traits. Harvester ants get their name from the fact that they collect seeds as their primary source of food. Harvester ants can be found worldwide, although most of the ones that live in North America tend to be found in desert areas.

Harvester ants are fairly average-sized ants, and generally don’t grow larger than about half an inch long or so. The color can vary depending on the species, but most harvester ants are reddish-orange, brown, or black.

As you might expect from an animal that mainly eats seeds, harvester ants use their stings as a means of defense, not for hunting. When a harvester ant attacks, it begins by biting down to secure itself to its victim and then follows up with a sting.

Not only is the sting of a harvester ant quite painful, but it lasts a fairly long time as well; pain that lasts for four hours or more is not terribly uncommon after getting stung by this ant.

Again, unless you have an allergy to insect stings, the sting of a harvester ant is never going to be fatal. You can treat a harvester ant sting the same way you’d treat any other non-life threatening insect sting, i.e. by making sure the wound is clean and applying a cool compress to the affected area.  

4. Red Velvet Ant

  • Has one of the longest stingers of any insect in terms of stinger to body ratio
  • Not technically an ant; actually a species of wingless wasp
  • Referred to as the “cow killer” because of a myth that its sting can kill a cow

The red velvet ant is a pretty distinctive insect, easily recognizable by its covering of dense, bright red hair.

Red velvet ants are actually a type of wasp, but they are often confused with ants due to the fact that females don’t have any wings. In addition, only the females are capable of actually delivering a sting.

Red velvet ants can be found in a few of the southern and midwestern states, including Florida, Texas, Kansas, and Connecticut.

There are a few other types of velvet ants, but the red velvet is the largest one, usually growing to about three-quarters of an inch in length

Adult red velvet ants eat only flower nectar, but their larvae have a more interesting diet. When a female red velvet ant is ready to lay eggs, she seeks out nests made by ground-dwelling bees or wasps. 

When she finds such a nest, she lays an egg on the host insect’s larva. When the egg hatches, the grub inside eats the larva, giving it the nutrients it needs to grow up into an adult red velvet ant. 

Since their diet is nectar, red velvet ants use their stings for defense.

The sting of the red velvet ant is notoriously painful, which is why you’ll sometimes hear the red velvet ant referred to by its nickname of the “cow killer“, as urban myths claim that the sting of the red velvet ant is painful enough to kill a cow.

Despite how painful they are, red velvet ant stings are by no means fatal. The pain doesn’t usually last too long, either; about half an hour in most cases.

Using a cold compress and hydrocortisone cream can help relieve some pain as well. 

3. Warrior Wasp

  • One of the most painful stings of any insect
  • Defend their nest by beating their wings to make a drum-like sound

The warrior wasp is actually a type of paper wasp. These wasps are also known as drumming wasps, thanks to the defensive technique they use that involves drumming their wings on the inside of their nest in a rhythmic fashion. 

Warrior wasps have a pretty distinct appearance; unlike many other types of wasps that advertise their venomous nature with bright colors, warrior wasps are often dark blue or black in color.

Warrior wasps are for the most part only found in the rainforests of Central and South America, so it’s unlikely that you’re ever going to encounter one in your lifetime. 

This is probably a good thing because the sting of a warrior wasp is considered to be one of the most painful of any in the insect kingdom.

Entomologist Justin Schmidt, who is most famous for creating the Schmidt insect sting pain index, described the sting of a warrior wasp as “torture” and compared the pain to being “chained in the flow of an active volcano”.

However, the pain from a warrior wasp sting usually doesn’t last that long, about half an hour in most cases.

In addition, in spite of the pain it causes, warrior wasp stings are not fatal to humans and don’t cause any lasting damage. 

2. Tarantula Hawk

  • One of the largest wasp species in the world
  • Uses its venom to capture tarantulas for its young to eat
  • Excruciatingly painful sting, but only lasts about 5 minutes

None of the other stings on this list is anything to scoff at, but with the tarantula hawk, we’re getting into some real big boy stings here.

If you’re not already familiar with this terrifying insect, the tarantula hawk is a type of wasp that gets its name from the fact that it captures tarantulas to feed its young.

While this on its own would be pretty scary, it only gets worse from here. The tarantula hawk is one of the largest wasps in the world and can grow up to 2 inches long.

Their stingers are also quite long, measuring a little under 1/3 of an inch in length. It’s hard to miss a tarantula hawk, thanks to their size and coloration; their bodies are a metallic bluish-black color, and they have fairly bright orange-colored wings.

They are solitary wasps, however, so you’re not likely to spot more than one at any given time.

The primary use of a tarantula hawk’s stinger is not for hunting or defense, but for reproduction. When a tarantula hawk is ready to breed, it finds a tarantula and stings it, which paralyzes it permanently but leaves it alive.

The tarantula hawk then drags the tarantula off to a premade burrow, where it lays a single egg. When the egg hatches, the larva inside eats the paralyzed tarantula, saving its internal organs for last so that the tarantula stays alive as long as possible and doesn’t start to go bad before the larva has eaten its fill. 

Tarantula hawks are not aggressive insects and don’t sting unless provoked, but their sting is well-documented as being one of the most excruciatingly painful stings of any insect.

The good news is that the sting is not fatal to humans, nor does it last very long; the pain from a tarantula hawk sting wears off after about five minutes.

1. Bullet Ant

  • Widely considered the insect with the most painful sting in the world
  • Pain from the sting can last up to 24 hours

Ah, the bullet ant. You may already be aware of this formidable insect, but if not, allow us to introduce you to the ant of your nightmares.

The bullet ant, like the warrior wasp, lives in the rainforests of Central and South America.

Bullet ants are among the largest ants in the world, growing up to an inch or more in length, and are also sometimes called conga ants, lesser giant hunting ants, and 24-hour ants (for reasons we’ll explain shortly).

Bullet ants get their name from the fact that the pain from their sting is often compared to getting shot. Not only is this pain incredibly intense, but it can also persist for up to 24 hours, which is how these ants get their other nickname.

Bullet ant venom is not fatal to humans, but can cause a few different symptoms aside from agonizing pain. These include edema, an increased heart rate, swelling of the lymph nodes, and even blood in your stool.

If you get stung by a bullet ant, your life won’t be in danger, but you’ll probably want to seek medical attention nonetheless.

Alright, that’s it for this article, here are a few hand-selected articles that you might also find interesting reads:

7 Of The Loudest Insects In The World Ranked By Decibels

The Unlucky 13: Insects with the Shortest Life Spans

Top 10 fastest flying insects in the world

Steve Foster

Mad about bugs and wanting to publish as many articles as I can to help educate people about these amazing beautiful creatures! For more info check out my about page https://schoolofbugs.com/about-steve-foster/

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