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Bullet ant (Paraponera clavata)

March 22, 2020

The history of the bullet ant is connected with the northwestern Amazon, with the sateré mawe, and this with that of the production and consumption of guaraná, and of the ritual of passage of the indigenous ethnic group.

The ant Paraponera clavata is one of the most painful stinging insects in the world, but not the most lethal.

Its intensity, classified at the highest level in the perception of insect sting pain on the Schmidt scale, corresponds to an almost unbearable pain, which sometimes even causes the affected person to lose consciousness.

bullet ant
Dorsal view of the bullet ant(Paraponera clavata) Location: Petit Saut, French Guiana, France Source: Didier Descouens(CCbySA4.0)

The effect of the neurotoxin involved, poneratoxin, is used by members of the Brazilian Sateré Mawé ethnic group as a test of courage and physical endurance in the rite of passage from adolescence to adulthood.

The Sateré Mawé inhabit a vast area of the Brazilian Amazon, shared by the states of Amazonas and Pará.

This ethnic group is known for being a pioneer in the treatment and consumption of guaraná, the ingredient of Brazil’s most popular energy drink, and also for its expertise in the production of fine handicrafts.

Index

Vernacular names of the bullet ant and their meaning

The bullet ant ( Paraponera clavata ) has many vernacular names, some related to the intensity of the insect’s sting.

Bullet ant is its most popular name in Mexico, Costa Rica, Peru and Uruguay, because its sting produces in the affected part the intense burning sensation of a bullet shot when it enters the victim’s body.

Others call it ant 24, alluding to the fact that the effects of the sting persist for at least 24 hours, a full day.

In Colombia and Ecuador they call it conga.

Presumably because of the insect’s characteristic black color. In Brazil it is known as tocandira or tocantera, and in Bolivia tucandera.

Other names are used in various Amazonian regions, such as formigao preto or tocanquibira (in Brazil), buka (in Bolivia), sapanquira, isula (Peru), yanabé (in Colombia), hormiga arriera (in Mexico).

Names beginning with tocan- (such as tocandera, tocandra, tocanquibira), or tucan- (such as tucandera, tucandira) are probably derived from tuca-ndy, which means in Tupi-Guarani “that which wounds deeply“, and are Portuguese language names.

In English the ant is known as bullet ant, conga ant .

Geographic origin and habitat of the bullet ant

Bullet Ant (Paraponera clavata)

The bullet ant probably has its center of origin in the Brazilian Amazon, although it is widely distributed from Brazil to Mexico.

It is abundant on the Atlantic coast of Central America, and in some countries of the Amazon basin such as Bolivia, Brazil and Venezuela.

Some say that this species is native to Central America and southern Mexico. Others from South America.

The fact is that this ant inhabits riverine or rainforests at low altitudes, up to 750 meters above sea level, generally located in the Amazon basin.

Insect Description Bullet ant

The bullet ant is a hymenopterous insect of the family Formicidae, which is the only living species of its subfamily.

Family / order

Formicids are a family of social insects that belong, along with wasps and bees, to the order Hymenoptera.

Evolution

They evolved from a wasp that lived in the mid-Cretaceous, about 110 to 130 million years ago.

Exoskeleton

The ant has an exoskeleton, an external covering that operates as a protective shell.

Body parts

Its body is divided into three well-defined body segments:

  1. Head,
  2. Mesosoma ( thorax plus first abdominal segment)
  3. And the metasoma or gaster (formed by the abdomen minus the abdominal segments of the petiole).

In addition, the ant has six legs anchored to the mesosoma.

Types of ants

In each colony, which is of long duration, live several hundred individuals, distributed in three classes: the worker ants, the males and the queen .

Female workers / females

Worker ants vary in length from 18 to 30 mm.

They are thick, reddish-black, wingless ants.

They are not aggressive ants, unless they feel harassed or have to defend their nest, which they do fiercely, while emitting a shrill sound.

They are infertile females, in charge of collecting food and defending the anthill.

Workers can live from 1 to 3 years .

Males

The males are endowed with wings and are responsible for fertilizing the eggs from which the queens will hatch.

They do nothing but eat and mate, and live only a few weeks .

Queens

The queen is the largest in the anthill and has wings, which she loses after the nuptial flight.

In each anthill there are one or more queens.

The queen is in charge of laying the eggs, from which the different elements of the anthill are born.

They can live up to 30 years.

Fun facts about bullet ants

Life

Bullet ants can live between 45 and 60 days.

Colonies

They form colonies of up to 500 ants, but they usually hang around in groups of 10 to 20 individuals.

Feeding

They feed on insects, leaf exudate and sap.

Plague

Herrera-Guevara (2016) reports that a coffee pulp treatment was used to eradicate bullet ants in plantations located in Moyobamba, San martin, in Peru.

bullet ant
A bullet ant. Author: Erin Mills

Reproduction of the bullet ant

Reproduction is sexual and has the following characteristics.

Fertilization

Fertilization takes place in the air, in a process known as nuptial flight.

The queen takes flight, followed by the male who seeks to impregnate her.

If the egg is fertilized, the offspring will be female (diploid). If it is not fertilized, it will be male (haploid).

Once fertilized, the queen loses her wings.

Isolation

The queen isolates herself in a small chamber that she digs inside the nest, where she lays her eggs, and remains enclosed until the following year.

The queen is self-feeding. The eggs are white, about 0.5 mm long.

Once the first worker ants are born, they are in charge of foraging for food for the queen ant.

Metamorphosis

The life of an ant begins with a single egg.

Ants develop by complete metamorphosis, i.e., they are holometabolous: larvae go through a pupal stage before becoming adults.

The larva remains practically immobile while being fed by the workers, who deliver the food by trophallaxis: the adult ant regurgitates liquid food from its stomach to share it.

And it also provides them with solid food.

Effective chemical communication mode

Formiids communicate with each other by means of pheromones.

In this way they provide information to the other ants in the colony so that they can follow the trail to the food source.

The path has been marked with chemical signs indicating the direction and intensity of the odors.

If the food source is depleted, they no longer emit pheromones and the trail disappears.

Pheromones also serve as an alarm signal when they are attacked.

The sting of the bullet ant

The bite of Paraponera clavata is the most painful bite among all insects.

The sting of the bullet ant is said to be up to 30 times greater than that of a common bee or wasp. Similar, they say, to the intense burning pain produced by a bullet when it wounds us.

The pain provoked is very intense.

Bullet ant(Paraponera clavata)
Source: Graham Wise from Brisbane, Australia(CCbySA2.0)

The pain scale

Entomologist Justin Schmidt, after being subjected to many bites from various insects, created a scale to measure such pain.

It is a table that goes from 1 (insect sting, such as a sweat bee, which is light and ephemeral) to 4 (tarantula wasp sting), and its highest point, 4+, which corresponds to the bullet ant sting, which is equivalent to walking on burning coal and with a 5 cm nail stuck in the heel of the foot.

Pain scaleInsect bites
1Sweat bee(Halictidae)
4Tarantula Hunting Wasp(Pepsini)
4+Bullet ant (Paraponera clavata)

It is a very strong stinging bite that causes pain in the affected area, inflammation, body trembling, sweating, nausea, fever, tachycardia, numbness in the affected limb and consequent paralysis.

But, despite the immense pain it causes (the name parapona comes from the Greek word for pain), it is not fatal.

Specialists estimate that, to be fatal, it is necessary to have received 30 stings for each kg of weight of the affected person. That is, it would take about 2,220 to 2,250 stings to kill a person weighing about 74 kg.

It takes 2,220 to 2,250 bullet ant stings to kill a person weighing about 74 kg.

What is poneratoxin?

The poison that produces the great pain of the sting is the neurotoxin called poneratoxin, described in the 1990s, when research was being done on natural substances from which insecticides could be obtained.

Paraponera clavata

This venom is a paralyzing neurotoxic peptide, which alters sodium ion channels and blocks impulses in the central nervous system of insects. Formic acid, when in contact with air, produces a semi-solid, amorphous, yellowish, water-soluble substance.

A rite only for the brave!

The rite of passage of the Sateré Mawé ethnic group is a test of physical endurance that indigenous youth undergo in order to pass from adolescence to adulthood.

Glove with tucandeira ants for the ritual passage of the Sateré-Mawé people.
Glove with tucandeira ants for the ritual passage of the Sateré-Mawé people Source: Joelma Monteiro de Carvalho / CC BY-SA

For this purpose, two gloves made of vegetable materials are prepared.

In each glove the shaman places about 50 ants, which, in order to manipulate them, he has previously lulled to sleep with an infusion of herbs.

Then, the shaman wakes them up with smoke.

The young man puts his hands into the gloves, and the ants begin to sting him, causing him almost unbearable pain.

The youngster must endure the stings for a while, about ten minutes, which must seem like a century. The pain is so severe that some lose consciousness.

It is claimed that there is a positive counterpart to this test: whoever undergoes it, it is said, has a strengthened immune system, acquires resistance to the poison and rarely gets sick.

The bullet ant as punishment

Merino-Serkovic (S.f.) refers to several stories from the Amazonian Andes, focusing his attention on the Monzon valley in the San Martin region.

There lived the Cholones, between the Tazo and Mixiollo rivers, who exploited salt mines, which disappeared around 1704.

When an indigenous person transgressed the rules of the village, they made him or her eat isula ants(Paraponera clavata), which were usually deposited in a pot of huingo (Crescentia cujete).

The sateré mawé and the pioneering consumption of guaraná

The Sateré Mawé are one of the indigenous tribes of the Brazilian Amazon region, inhabiting the middle stretch of the Amazon River, between the states of Amazonas and Pará.

Linguistically, they belong to the Tupi-Guarani stock (See: Amazonian indigenous languages).

They are well known for:

  • Their struggle to defend their ancestral territorial rights,
  • For being pioneers in the production, transformation and consumption of guaraná(Paullinia cupana), and in the domestication of this wild climbing plant,
  • And for its celebrated handicrafts, known as tecume, made by the men of the villages using stems and leaves of caraná, arumá and other plants.
  • Their farms are mostly planted with guaraná and yucca, from which the women extract flour, although there are also plantations of jerimum or abóbora, sweet potato, white and purple cará, and fruits such as oranges.
  • Their diet is complemented by the consumption of some insects, honey and brazil nuts.
  • The drink they drink daily and with which they entertain visitors to their villages is the capó, resulting from grating the guaraná cane in water.
  • Their form of political organization is governed by the Tuxaua, who is the mediating and negotiating authority in internal conflicts, and who is in charge of directing agricultural activities, both production and harvesting, as well as commercial activities.

Video of the Sateré Mawé and their customs

References

  • Herrera-Guevara M.J. (2016). Evaluation of coffee doses in the eradication of Paraponera clavata “Isula” (Hymenoptera: formicidae). Moyobamba. Thesis. Faculty of ecology. National University of San Martín. Peru.
  • Hurtado A. (2013). The bullet ant and the conga. La Patria.com. Manizales and Caldas, Colombia. Source
  • Merino-Serkovic E.M. (S.f.). Golden Mists. Stories from the Amazonian Andes. Lima: PUCP. Source
  • Quezada-Martínez J.L. (2006). Economic analysis of fire ant Solenopsis invicta infestations in Matamoros, Tamaulipas, Mexico. Ph.D. Thesis. Universidad Autónoma Agraria Antonio Narro. Coahuila, Mexico. PDF
  • Silva-Lorenz S. (2015). Sateré Mawé. Encyclopedia Povos Indígenas no Brasil. Source

This post is also available in: Español (Spanish)

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