Science & Technology

Watch This Slow-Mo Footage of a Fire Ant Injecting Venom

Hopefully, you've never felt the sting of a fire ant. But if you have, you know how intensely painful it can be. While it's common to refer to a fire ant's "bite," it's actually a sting, complete with a stinger and a painful injection of venom. Now, for what's possibly the first time ever, you can watch exactly what happens when a fire ant's stinger impales your skin and beings pumping out its painful contents. It's incredible stuff.

Pain Injection

The video comes from Dr. Adrian Smith, a research assistant professor at North Carolina State University and host of the YouTube channel Ant Lab, which is also a project of North Carolina State. To his knowledge, this is the first time anyone has filmed the precise process that goes down when a fire ant stings its victim — probably because the action is so incredibly small and happens so incredibly quickly.

As Dr. Smith explains, a fire ant's stinger is made up of two main components. First is a stylet, which is essentially a hollow hypodermic needle attached to a reservoir of venom. Arranged around the perimeter of the stylet are three more needles called lancets, which move back and forth to dig beneath the surface and pump out the venom. It only takes about 75 milliseconds for one lancet to move, so a fire ant can inject a surprising amount of venom in less than a second.

Fire ants generally carry around 30 nanoliters of venom — a small fraction of your average drop of liquid — and inject about 0.7 nanoliters with every sting, though that dosage can vary from ant to ant. Fire ants don't just use their venom to attack; they also use it to clean their nests and to attract mates, so it's not surprising that a 2012 analysis of the venom found it contained not only neurotoxins but also antibacterial compounds and various pheromones.

This'll Hurt You More Than It'll Hurt Me

There is some truth to calling it a fire ant "bite," however: The ant needs to bite you in order to steady herself for the sting. You can watch this in action in the Ant Lab video below:

The worker sinks her mandibles into Dr. Smith's skin, then feels around with her stinger for the perfect place to stab. Remember: This is slow-motion footage. The real sting happens so fast that in real life, you might barely know it happened, save for the intense burning sensation that follows.

Once she's done stinging, she just pulls her stinger back out and goes on her way, leaving her victim with a painful sting and a valuable lesson about messing with fire ants.

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Learn more about this painful superpower in "Venom: The Secrets of Nature's Deadliest Weapon" by Ronald Jenner and Eivind Undheim. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Ashley Hamer August 26, 2019

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