Ant stings can disrupt neural processes like reptile, insect venom - study

Scientists identified similar toxins in ants in self-defense, similar to reptiles and other insects.

 The South American bullet ant. (photo credit: WIKIMEDIA)
The South American bullet ant.
(photo credit: WIKIMEDIA)

Ant stings can be just as destructive to the nervous system as snake or scorpion venom, Australian researchers revealed.

According to a study by researchers at the University of Queensland in Australia, some of the world's most painful ant stings act like venom from other insects when stung.

Led by scientists at the university's Institute for Molecular Bioscience, the Australian green ant and the South American bullet ant were the center of this peer-reviewed study because their stings have long-lasting pain.

“We have shown that these ant venoms target our nerve cells that send pain signals,” said Dr. Sam Robinson, leader of the study. “Normally, the sodium channels in these sensory neurons open only briefly in response to a stimulus. We discovered that the ant toxins bind to the sodium channels and cause them to open more easily and stay open and active, which translates to a long-lasting pain signal."

In discussing the impact of the ants and their long-lasting stings - often up to 12 hours of intense bone pain in addition to fever, is not unlike the impact of a bee sting - just longer and more intense.

The Australian green ant (credit: CREATIVE COMMONS)
The Australian green ant (credit: CREATIVE COMMONS)

“We don’t have bullet ants in Australia, but our green ant (or greenhead ant) can also cause long-lasting pain and many Australians will have experienced this.”

Which insect has the most painful sting?

The bullet ant was rated as having the most painful insect sting in the world by an American entomologist who created a pain index of stinging insects.

Robinson added that understanding how the pain works can be helpful in developing further treatment.

“We want to understand pain at a molecular level and toxins are fantastic tools to do this,” he said. “These neurotoxins which target sodium channels are unique to ants, no one has found anything that looks or acts the same way so now we have a new set of tools to work with.”

Ants have become one of the most successful animal groups in Earth's history. They initially had to develop neurotoxins in defense to fend off predators during the age of dinosaurs.