The worst pain known to humans: the “bullet ant” gloves of Brazil

August 6, 2014 • 10:20 am

Parponera clavata is known as the “bullet ant” because of the intense pain it inflicts with its stings. It’s a big reddish-black ant of the neotropical forests, and I was stung a single time by one in Costa Rica. It was, perhaps, the most intense pain from an insect I’ve ever felt (a baby squirrel sinking its incisors repeatedly into the ball of my thumb rivals this incident!)

They’re huge ants; here’s one for scale. The ruler is in centimeters (2.54 cm = 1 inch), so this one things is nearly an inch long. Other workers can get up to 1.2 inches long. Believe me, you won’t forget one once you’ve seen it:


Here’s what Wikipedia  says about the sting:

The pain caused by this insect’s sting is purported to be greater than that of any other hymenopteran, and is ranked as the most painful according to the Schmidt sting pain index, given a “4+” rating, above the tarantula hawk wasp and, according to some victims, equal to being shot, hence the name of the insect. It is described as causing “waves of burning, throbbing, all-consuming pain that continues unabated for up to 24 hours”. The ant is thought to have evolved its sting to ward off any predators that would normally unearth them. Poneratoxin, a paralyzing neurotoxic peptide isolated from the venom, affects voltage-dependent sodium ion channels and blocks the synaptic transmission in the central nervous system. It is being investigated for possible medical applications.

Wikipedia also reports that tribes in Brazil use them as an initiation rite. Note the part I’ve bolded, and reread it once you’ve seen the videos below:

The Satere-Mawe people of Brazil use intentional bullet ant stings as part of their initiation rites to become a warrior.The ants are first rendered unconscious by submerging them in a natural sedative, and then hundreds of them are woven into a glove made of leaves (which resembles a large oven mitt), stingers facing inward. When the ants regain consciousness, a boy slips the glove onto his hand. The goal of this initiation rite is to keep the glove on for a full 10 minutes. When finished, the boy’s hand and part of his arm are temporarily paralyzed because of the ant venom, and he may shake uncontrollably for days. The only “protection” provided is a coating of charcoal on the hands, supposedly to confuse the ants and inhibit their stinging. To fully complete the initiation, however, the boys must go through the ordeal a total of 20 times over the course of several months or even years.

What is this like? Here’s a foolish documentary filmmaker, Hamish Blake, trying on the ant gloves for an Australian t.v. documentary. He can tolerate them only for a few seconds, and then has eight hours of excruciating pain.

The  report by NineMSN from Australia, just filed today, says this:

Hamish Blake wanted to test his pain threshold in front of the TV cameras with an Amazonian bullet ant ritual, but ended up heading for hospital after collapsing from the unrelenting agony.

Blake was attempting the stunt for last night’s season finale of the Nine Network’s Hamish and Andy’s Gap Year South America.

He was taking part in a coming-of-age ritual with the Satere-Mawe Tribe, an indigenous tribe from the Amazon rain forest in Brazil, which involves putting on gloves filled with bullet ants and withstanding the pain produced by their toxic bites.

The bullet ant boasts the number one spot on the Schmidt Sting Pain Index — a scale created by Justin Schmidt that rates the pain caused by different Hymenopteran stings.

Footage, currently trending on reddit, shows Blake unable to keep the gloves on for more than a few seconds as he screams, shakes and sweats from multiple stinging bites.

. . . “Twenty-four hours after the bullet ants (and) I still gave them no thumbs up, even if I could move my thumbs,” Blake wrote.

“On the plus side, no danger of wedding ring slipping off!”

The bullet ant incident brought an end to the painfully hilarious South American gap year for the comedy duo, that has seen Lee take a lion’s share of the stunts.

Here’s Hamish’s hands 24 hours after donning the gloves:

Screen Shot 2014-08-06 at 12.01.40 PM

The video below shows a member of the tribe that uses these gloves; in this National Geographic video, a young lad has to wear them for five minutes. Then a gringo puts them for the same time, and has 24 hours of that horrible pain.

What humans won’t do to show their “manliness”!

104 thoughts on “The worst pain known to humans: the “bullet ant” gloves of Brazil

  1. I learned about the Schmidt sting pain index on QI! Here’s a video clip of the magnificent Stephen Fry talking about it. I’m a big admirer of Schmidt for having been stung so many times for science. He’s always welcome at my place for a cup of tea.
    I love the Australian sense of humour of those two guys in the video.

    1. Pardon my tangent, but this is a rather striking real-world refutation of the common anti-scientism-ist claim that subjective experience must remain forever inaccessible to empirical study. Not only can scientists know what your pain feels like, they can rank it on a four-point scale.

      In fact we don’t have to look very far for other examples of this. ER triage nurses use a similar pain scale. And anyone who shops for wine or reads movie reviews routinely places their trust in numerical assessments of subjective pleasure.

    2. Here is a version of the index:

      Animal:Sweat bee
Schmidt Index: 1.0
Description: Light, ephemeral, almost fruity. A tiny spark has singed a single hair on your arm.

      Animal: Fire ant

      Schmidt Index: 1.2
Description: Sharp, sudden, mildly alarming. Like walking across a shag carpet and reaching for the light switch.

      Animal: Bullhorn acacia ant
Schmidt Index: 1.8

      Description: A rare, piercing, elevated sort of pain. Someone has fired a staple into your cheek.

      Animal: Bald-faced hornet
Schmidt Index: 2.0

      Description: Rich, hearty, slightly crunchy. Similar to getting your hand mashed in a revolving door.

      Animal: Yellowjacket

      Schmidt Index: 2.0

      Description: Hot and smoky, almost irreverent. Imagine W. C. Fields extinguishing a cigar on your tongue.

      Animal: Honey bee and European hornet
Schmidt Index: 2.0

      Description: Like a matchhead that flips off and burns on your skin.

      Animal: Red harvester ant
Schmidt Index: 3.0

      Description: Bold and unrelenting. Somebody is using a drill to excavate your ingrown toenail.

      Animal: Paper wasp

      Schmidt Index: 3.0
Description: Caustic and burning. Distinctly bitter aftertaste. Like spilling a beaker of hydrochloric acid on a paper cut.

      Animal: Tarantula hawk

      Schmidt Index: 4.0
Description: Blinding, fierce, shockingly electric. A running hair drier has been dropped into your bubble bath.

      Animal: Bullet ant

      Schmidt Index: 4.0+

      Description: Pure, intense, brilliant pain. Like fire-walking over flaming charcoal with a 3-inch rusty nail grinding into your heel.

      1. Mostly I don’t understand modern poetry, but sometimes someone gets it just right. Apparently that version is a loose collaboration between Schmidt and someone (unnamed) at Outside magazine in 1996, but it’s a thing of beauty.

        The sweat bees I know in northern Australia don’t sting at all as far as I can tell (level 0 or n/a), and are probably phylogenetically distant from the ones Schmidt rated.

        A large spider-killer wasp (presumably comparable to the tarantula hawk mentioned under level 4 in the link above) got me once, and I compared it to being hit with a hammer. There was also momentary retrograde amnesia, as I’d been slowly moving my hand towards it (it was immobile under a rock I turned over, and I thought it was probably dead) but couldn’t recall getting closer than a couple of inches.

        Personally, I’d think about using separate scales for onset, peak intensity and duration. I’ll try to get hold of more of the literature (not much is open access, but this one‘s good), and see if there’s anything useful to say about elapid snakebites, which I’ve sampled a bit. On the Schmidt/Starr scale based on immediate pain, I doubt that any snake goes above level 2. Some of them kill with no pain at all.

  2. As is so often the case, substitute “manliness” for “stupidity”. Trouble is, I can remember a time when I might have had a go myself. 🙂

          1. Three glad??? What was my iPad thinking? I meant very glad..Was it on here that I saw the comment “Autocorrect has become my worst enema”?

            1. I thought you were just adding yourself onto the list after missironfistatheist. Like the autocorrect quote :).

              1. Whoops – maybe that IS what I meant….I can still damn autocorrect gratuitously just on principle;-)

  3. Small correction, it’s Paraponera, not Parponera. I’m sure your finger just slipped.

    I’ve seen some of Hamish comedy programs and while, in my opinion, this was inmensely stupid, it was also the funniest thing i’ve seen him do 😛

  4. Can evolution be somewhat involved here? Presumably, passing (surviving) the manhood test will have a bearing on getting a spouse and status in the community. The current population is likely descended from those most immune to the toxin. This could explain why tribal members can bear the pain, while outsiders are totally debilitated.

      1. Darwin Award candidates? As fate would have it, I have a date with a hornet’s nest tonight. Full body armor for me.

    1. I was thinking that the tribesmen could have some more tolerance b/c they had been stung once or twice before, as kids playing in the woods. But I am sure that also being very stoic and not showing pain at any cost is also a big factor.

  5. The Schmidt pain index, at least the version “wheedled” out of Schmidt by some popular magazine (whose name I forget) is a work of art by itself, with descriptions of the pain parodying the pretentious vocabulary of wine tasting reviews. For example, the bullet ant is described as producing a “pure, intense and brilliant” pain, while the sweat bee produces one that is “light, ephemeral, almost fruity”.

  6. It’s possible that the Satere-Mawe are having some fun at the filmmakers’ expense. Maybe the glove for their tribesmen are not quite the same as those for the gawkers. It wouldn’t be the first time something like that happened.

  7. Tarantula hawk wasp…state insect of New Mexico. I just found two of them in my yard. They have a commanding presence, like “Stay the hell away or you die slowly and painfully while I walk, not fly, away.”

    1. They are gorgeous, impressive and extraordinarily terrifying. Our common wasps make me uneasy and get my adrenalin pumping if they get too close…one of those giants in my yard would make me move away to another part of the country.

    2. Yes, I have seen a few of them while living in the west. They are not aggressive, thank ceiling cat. I did consider letting one crawl on me (b/c I used to like to do lost of stupid things like that). Now, I am glad I did not.

      1. Those are the kind that hang out in our garden. When they do that to me, ah, the pain is like being injected briefly with acid then vinegar and finally strong mouthwash. Thankfully it last only minutes.

  8. I wonder if the Amazonian tribe that practices the ritual has developed somewhat of a tolerance to the stings.

    My grandfather raised bees and though my father would don protective clothing when handling the bees to avoid being stung, my grandfather wouldn’t bother finding the gear more inconvenient than the bee stings which he described as mild pricks.

  9. Never heard of bullet-ants…thanks for the post. These right of passage rituals are fascinating. How about those people in India who rub ghost peppers in their eyes? Yikes!

    1. Ghost peppers in the eyes? Yeesh. But they eat a lot of spicy food, so maybe it is only excruciating.

      1. PZ just posted about a guy in the UK who regrets putting popping candy under his foreskin. The rituals people from strange cultures will perform!

          1. Funnym, I was having such a good time in here, then I read “putting popping candy under his foreskin”.

        1. putting popping candy under his foreskin

          I know people who would think that a good start to the evening. At least, if “popping candy” is the sort of confectionery that I think it is. If it’s not … that could get very weird.

  10. I dunno Jerry… you have inflicted a lot of Sofistikated Theology upon yourself over the years, and I’m sure you’ll never forget that pain either.

    1. I often wonder how Jerry manages to endure the pain of reading the nutcase and wacko mail. Would repeated exposure desensitize a person or amplify the pain.

        1. Theologian: Alvin Plantinga
          Schmidt Index: 3.5
          Description: A gooey, pungent sort of pain. Like placing your face on a George Foreman grill.

  11. The repeated exposures must build some kind of tolerance, right? Otherwise it’s hard to imagine anyone going through this 20 TIMES.

    And this may be considered an “initiation ritual” now, but it may have actually had a purpose at some point. If tribes in this area go to war, those ants would make an effective weapon. In order to become a warrior you’d have to desensitize yourself in advance, or else experience it in battle with fatal consequences.

  12. The different texts move back and forth between “stings” and “bites.” I always thought that ants bit and formic acid got into the wound (hence the family name Formicidae). Can someone clarify? My class in entomology was in 1971. Thanks.

    1. Both are correct. Some genera have stingers (e.g. Solenopsis), while others don’t and instead have an apparatus that sprays the chemicals (e.g. Formica). Those can bite and then spray the wound. Generally speaking, unless i’m mistaken, the ones with stingers tend to be significantly worse.

    2. I’d like to know that too. It looks like it has a little stinger on its rear end. I once had someone tell me that there is a difference between a wasp sting and a wasp bite, but when I looked into it, entomologists said that wasps never bite as a defensive measure. If you get pricked by a wasp, it’s definitely a sting and not a bite. Maybe ants are the same? I don’t know.

  13. “Poneratoxin, a paralyzing neurotoxic peptide isolated from the venom, affects voltage-dependent sodium ion channels and blocks the synaptic transmission in the central nervous system. It is being investigated for possible medical applications.”

    How many other medical applications are never discovered because of species extinction?

    Got to wonder (did not watch the vid) if the ‘glove’ is woven by the lad’s mom.

    And does the bullet ant need to be so beautiful? 🙁

  14. Are there any societies that have these sort of rituals for their women? By that I mean undergoing great pain or risk as an initiation ritual.

    Perhaps childbirth is the female equivalent.

    1. I’ve heard of a southern African tribe where part of the initiation to be an elite warrior is to remain flaccid in the presence of a woman dancing naked after being alone in the bush for a while. That’s probably quite risky for the woman.

    2. I have been told by a brother-in-law who works in an emergency room that women who have experienced the passing of a kidney stone tell him that it is roughly equivalent to childbirth in severity of pain. Having passed a kidney stone a couple of months ago – well, it wasn’t fun.

      1. I’d heard several horror stories and people would screw up their faces and act very sympathetic. When it was my turn the pain from having stones in my kidney was worse than actually passing them, which was eased by taking medication that partly dissolved and weakened the structure of the stones, breaking them up and making them easier to pass. But it was not a fun time in my life. 🙁

          1. My last serious stone incident (about eight years ago) ended with laser lithotripsy, in which they threaded a fiber-optic laser through my urethra and bladder to where the stone was lodged in my ureter. (Fortunately I was unconscious during this procedure.) Because of its position near my pelvis they couldn’t pinpoint the stone accurately enough for external shock-wave lithotripsy.

            Best advice for people prone to stone formation: stay hydrated, limit your coffee intake (oxalic acid contributes to stone growth), learn to recognize the early sensations of stone formation, and titrate your urinary pH with daily doses of strong lemonade to shrink any stones that do form.

            1. Due to my weight I wasn’t a candidate for this. I’ve read that apple juice (I was an addict) can be a factor. I continue to take the appropriate medication to (hopefully) prevent stones from re-forming.

              1. Well this is just great – I had coffee this morning and I just heated up some apple cider. Should I hop in the car and head for the hospital right now?

              2. Black coffee two or three times a week hasn’t been a problem for me — so long as I remain alert to those internal symptoms. Lattes (calcium + oxalic acid) are definitely not on, however.

              3. {Replying to Gregory] My father had a kidney stone years ago. The experience was so traumatic that he cut way back on his dairy intake. He is now osteopenic and will be on meds for that for the rest of his life.

    3. Female circumcision and other scarring rituals would be the closest equivalent. I had a prof in college who said that in some tribes, a girl’s first period is considered her “initiation” into womanhood–she’s showing that she’s an adult by shedding blood.

        1. His point, which I realize I didn’t make clear, is that the tribes don’t put the girls through an blood-letting initiation ceremony because nature provides one.

      1. That sound bite will, ahem, bite him. But it’s sad that this guy can’t even smile without ridicule. The hate for our President is abhorrent.

        1. I agree. The disrespect is appalling (I’m also not declaring Diana to be in this camp.) Though one out two of the haters unintentionally outed themselves but saying something like ” i wanted to see him fail from the moment he took the oath of office…” So tell me, what did you know about him at that point except for, um, skin color.

          The worst thing is that the hate is so massive that when Mr. Obama does something I think should be criticized, it isn’t possible to have a serious, balanced convetsation about it.

          1. When I was watching the news about bin Laden being killed, I said, “The Republicans must be wracking their brains, trying to figure out how to use this AGAINST Obama.” I was right; conservatives were soon saying that bin Laden wasn’t really THAT important, that Obama waited too long to launch the attack, that Obama should have waited several days before making the announcement that bin Laden was dead, that it was Obama’s fault that a helicopter crashed, etc. They obviously were incapable of giving him credit for ANYTHING. It reminded me of the old joke: if he walked on water, they’d say “What’s the matter? Can’t he swim?”

          2. It is truly appalling how he’s been treated. The hatred of Obama by so many is so visceral that no rational discussion is possible. These people can’t admit they’re motivated by racism so they have to rationalize like crazy.

  15. There is a mention here of gated sodium channels. There is a gene called SCN11A that encodes a voltage-gated sodium channel. Activating mutations in this gene cause familial episodic pain syndromes ( I wonder if these guys have a downregulation of that gene that allows them to at least partially resist the pain. The natives certainly seemed to be suffering less than the visitors.

  16. All this sort of tribal nonsense will soon be eradicated from this world and will go in the way of other tribal customs that no longer exist such as Aztec human (child) sacrifice. This will happen as slowly the whole world becomes civilised, even Afghanistan! How? By the spread of reason.

    1. You really think so? Bull Fighting, which as a method of inflicting ritual pain does not seem to be much better, goes on in several regions of the world that would be considered “civilized” by any standards.

      1. And is not likely to last for much longer…
        Here in Spain, the attitudes towards it are shifting quickly and it may be a matter of a few years before significant changes are made or it even disappears. It’s already banned in one region…

        1. Bull fighting also survives in Tamil Nadu in India. What makes things even more ironic is that by any standards, Tamil Nadu is among the most “developed” Indian states, with various economic and social indicators matching with the best in the world, and also one of the most economically prosperous. Yet, bull fighting survives despite court orders and animal rights activism. The saving grace is that unlike the Spanish version, the bull is not killed, but people still die occasionally.

          1. “Saving grace..” seems a bit strong. The version in India does not give the humans any weapons as far as I am aware, the bull is not constantly stabbed or slowly bled to death. That is a world of difference, not a tiny matter of death at the end as your statement (at least to me) implies. This is basically, especially after looking at some quick youtube videos, like American and Canadian rodeos. I think it would be hard to say if the bull undergoes any serious physical or emotional trauma here, it seems to be on the same level as pack animals (in fact less because the bulls have an awesome life the rest of the time, they hardly undergo backbreaking exertion). The only ones with real risk for trauma are the humans here. Funnily this activity matches activities in the US and Canada (very civilized places) like the other indicators you point out, so maybe Tamil Nadu really is becoming more “civilized”.

              1. Yes I agree with that point which is why I think this a bad example as it doesn’t seem to display any cruelty to animals. And it hasn’t displayed cruelty to animals historically, especially for cows in this part of the world, and so has little do with Pinker’s point, if anything its a counterpoint or exception. Anyway getting a bit too pedantic, that’ll be the last I’ll post on this.

    2. Hmm, not sure I share your optimism.

      If you ever see a hen or stag do here in the UK, these are a) not very civilised, but more importantly, b) also lead to excruciating hangovers that last up to 24 hours.

      They are also considered by some to be an initiation ritual where you show you’re an adult by inflicting and tolerating the pain.

      Plus ça change…

  17. Not having the experience of either one of these ants, or of passing a kidney stone, I don’t know how they compare. But I’ve had a colleague who started passing a kidney stone during a fogged-in spell on a rig, and it took 3 days before he could get to shore for some proper medication. I’ve frequently heard of that as being the worst pain in the world.

      1. I’ve passed kidney stones. It felt like I was passing a red-hot ball-bearing, and I made Ralph Kramden noises while it was happening: “OOOOOHwoooahooooh!” Once it was out, though, there was no pain, but everyone’s experience is different.
        I was giving my medical history to a woman from an insurance company and mentioned that I had had kidney stones. She asked if I needed surgery; when I told her I passed them, she matter-of-factly said, “So you know what it’s like to give birth.”
        As David Duncan says above, the pain from having them was excrutiating; passing them was over in a couple of seconds. You’ll definitely know you’re passing them though.

        1. Hmmm, St******* was stuck with his for 3 days (no helicopters because of fog ; no transfer to boats because of sea state) and described it in “I don’t have words” words. But no doubt individuals (the stones) differ.

    1. He wasn’t wearing a ring during the glove incident, nor in hospital, nor I think, as it’s not very clear in the photo, later in the restaurant.
      I suspect those are not his swollen hands.

  18. Just to point out that Hamish Blake (and his colleague, Andy Lee) are comedians, not documentary makers. They have made several popular series for Australian television where they travel to various parts of the world and do various silly (and supposedly entertaining) stunts like this. Risk of self-harm is part of the humour, I guess, but I have always found the whole “Jackass” idea moronic.

  19. Did anybody else have to think of Frank Herbert’s Dune?

    With the box to put your hand in to see if you can handle the unspeakable pain?

    At least there your hand came out unharmed…

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