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The most venomous insect isn't some rare, exotic rain forest creature. You may even have them in your own yard. Can you guess what it is?
The Venomous Ant
The world's most venomous insect is an ant. Not just any ant will do, since many ants don't sting. Of the ones that do, the award for most toxic venom goes to the harvester ant (Pogonomyrmex Maricopa). The LD50 for harvester ant venom (in rodents) is 0.12 mg/kg. Compare that to an LD50 of 2.8 mg/kg for a honey bee (Apis mellifera) sting. According to the University of Florida Book of Insect Records, this is "equivalent to 12 stings killing a 2 kg (4.4 lb) rat." Since most rats don't weigh 4 1/2 pounds, put this in perspective: It takes about three stings to kill a 1-pound rat.
Venom: Amino Acids, Peptides, and Proteins
Insect venoms are comprised of amino acids, peptides, and proteins. They may include alkaloids, terpenes, polysaccharides, biogenic amines (such as histamine), and organic acids (such as formic acid). Venoms also may contain allergenic proteins, which can trigger a potentially lethal immune response in sensitive individuals.
Biting and stinging are separate actions in ants. Some ants bite and do not sting. Some bite and spray venom on the bitten area. Some bite and inject formic acid with a stinger. Harvester and fire ants bite and sting in a two-part process. The ants will grab hold with their mandibles, and then pivot around, repeatedly stinging and injecting venom. The venom includes an alkaloid poison. Fire ant venom includes an alarm pheromone, which chemically alerts other ants in the vicinity. Chemical signaling is why the ants all appear to sting at once. That is essentially what they do.
The Most Venomous Insect Isn't the Most Dangerous
You'd do best to avoid harvester ants, especially if you are allergic to insect stings, but there are other insects much more likely to kill you or make you sick. Driver ants, for example, form the largest insect colonies. Their venom isn't the problem. It's that the ants travel en masse, repeatedly biting any animal in their path multiple times. These ants can kill elephants.
The most dangerous insect in the world is the mosquito. While mosquitoes carry a variety of nasty pathogens, the big killer is malaria. Fortunately, only the Anopheles mosquito transmits the deadly disease. A total of 219 million cases of malaria were reported in 2017, leading to more deaths (435,000) than from any other insect bite, sting or disease. The World Health Organization estimates a death occurs every 30 seconds.
- “Chapter 23: Most Toxic Insect Venom.” Chapter 23: Most Toxic Insect Venom | The University of Florida Book of Insect Records | Department of Entomology & Nematology | UF/IFAS.
- “Fact Sheet about Malaria.” World Health Organization.