Doing Dumb Stuff With Animals Top 10 Countdown, #8: Playing With Bullet Ants

The following is part of a top ten list written originally for The Times (London) by Richard Conniff from his new book Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time: My Life Doing Dumb Stuff with Animals (W.W. Norton).

One time in a rain forest in Panama, a big, handsome solitary ant came climbing down a tree trunk. A local told me it was called the bullet ant and suggested that I pick it up for a closer look. Something about his smile caused me to decline. Years later, I met up with an Arizona entomologist who specializes in insect sting pain. He’s best known as the creator of the Justin O. Schmidt Pain Index, a connoisseur’s guide to just how bad the ouch is, on a scale of one (“a tiny spark”) to four (“absolutely debilitating”). So I told him about my bullet ant in Panama.

"It gets its name because it feels like a bullet went into you," Schmidt told me. His own encounter occurred in Brazil, when he was digging up a nest. “It was just unmitigated, excruciating pain." After a few minutes, he went back to his digging and got stung three more times. He was "still quivering and screaming from these peristaltic waves of pain" twelve hours later, despite the effects of beer and ice compresses. "This is the kind of science where you can never prove that one insect is the number one stinging thing," he said, "but at a certain point, you run out of viable competition.” For once, I was glad that I had not done the dumb thing.