I have seen quite a few lists of the most terrifying insects on the planet. Unfortunately it seems a lot of people are unaware that spiders, scorpions and even centipedes are NOT insects. They all belong to phylum Arthropoda, but they should not appear on these articles. I can understand why this happens as it is somewhat challenging to come up with a reasonably diverse list of killer insects as, to be honest, very few are even remotely dangerous. Unpleasant, scary, disgusting, yes! – deadly, not really.
If you rule out the majority of insect related deaths which are as the result of allergies it leaves us with only a few candidates that can cause much damage at all. Of these most are from the order Hymenoptera – the ants, wasps and bees – all of which possess a venomous sting.
Beyond this group there are a few bloodsuckers. Previously I have always steered away from ranking animals that carry disease as being dangerous, I figured it was a little like saying “water is the most dangerous drink as more people die from drinking dirty water than any other”. However, given the lack of that many genuinely deadly insects I have included these on the list.
10. Bed bugs
To ease you into this list of truly unpleasant insects I’ve decided to start with something that might not terrify you but could spoil your night’s sleep. Not exactly the stuff of nightmares but pretty disgusting all the same.
Approximately the size of an apple pip there could be thousands of these living in your bedroom without you ever seeing one. Bed bugs are particularly good at hiding, they are pancake thin and can slip into the tiniest of cracks. Here they stay until the middle of the night when they come out to feast – on you!
The big purple straw you see in the photo above is pretty much that. It’s for plugging into you and sucking up your blood. For some people this process doesn’t leave a trace, for many it is something like being bitten by masses of mosquitoes, and for an unfortunate few the bugs saliva can trigger anaphylactic shock.
Bed bugs are supremely well adapted to survive and are becoming an increasing problem. If you discover you have a bed bug infestation this is just the beginning of the problem as getting rid of them is very difficult indeed. They can stay hidden for months without feeding only to re-emerge after you thought you’d eradicated them.
Whilst bedbugs may be a huge irritation to people think yourselves lucky you are not a female bedbug. Romance is out and mating occurs through a process called “traumatic insemination” in which the male basically stabs the female in the abdomen to deliver his sperm.
9. Tarantula hawk wasp
There is nothing particularly deadly about the sting of the Tarantula Hawk wasp, although you may well wish for a quick death after it has stung you. Measuring an enormous 2 in (5cm) in length this is one of the biggest wasps on the planet and it comes well-armed.
With a stinger around 1/3 in (7mm) long this insect is a virtual flying syringe. And it’s not just for show. While other bugs are happy to sip nectar or pick on smaller, defenseless bugs, the tarantula hawk moth does anything but this. Yes, that name is there for a reason, and this is it:
Baby tarantula hawk wasps have quite a demanding diet. They need meat, spider meat. And not just any spider, they only want the meat of the biggest, hairiest and meanest spiders around. So, the obliging mother wasp must go out and wrestle a spider before jabbing it with that monster-sized sting.
Once immobilized the wasp drags the spider back to her lair where she injects it with a single egg. Once hatched the wasp larva will feast on the still live spider, avoiding the vital organs in order to keep the meat alive and fresh.
The tarantula hawk wasp may be the bane of spiders but it is also definitely one to avoid for humans. The sting from one of these beasts was the subject of a study into the most painful insect stings carried out by Dr Justin O Schmidt. He actually voluntarily let one of these wasps sting him just to see how bad it was, and apparently it was pretty bad.
He scored the sting a 4 out of a possible 4 rating it “traumatically painful”. His exact words were:
Blinding, fierce, shockingly electric. A running hair drier has been dropped into your bubble bath.
8. Army Ant
The army ant has long been a staple of the horror genre. The image of millions of these little monsters marching relentlessly through forests devouring everything in their path is etched into popular culture.
There are in fact over 200 different species of ants that the name “army ant” has been applied to. All have one thing in common, they go out looking for food in massive numbers and these foraging parties can be over 20m (80ft) wide and 100m (330ft) in length.
Of all the army ants it is those of the Doylus or driver ant genus that have the reputation for being most aggressive. As well as forming armies containing up to 50 million individuals the soldier ants are quite formidable. Their powerful jaws can easily break the skin and once attached they are difficult to remove; you will often pull the ant in two before it releases its grip.
In fact some East African tribes use the ants as make shift sutures. The ants are encouraged to bite across the wound and then their bodies are snapped off forming stitches which can last several days.
One of the most interesting facts about driver ants, and army ants in general, is that they are blind. They manage to stick together and move in a coordinated manner purely by pheromones with this chemical communication creating an almost hive like super organism.
So, driver ants are big, carnivorous, have powerful jaws, travel in millions and are aggressive. But are they dangerous?
Well, certainly in theory, and there are accounts of driver ants devouring everything in their paths. However, most larger animals have little problem getting out of their way. That said the ants sometimes manage to catch small vertebrates such as toads and mice. When they do it is far from the piranha like feeding-frenzy that appears in popular fiction and rather than stripping a cow to the bone in a matter of minutes it will take them many hours to strip a mouse.
In my research I could find no reports of human deaths caused by army ants. The only suggestion I came across was they may be able to kill a human by suffocation if they crawled into the airways and lungs. Sounds like a nice way to go…
7. Chigoe fleas
Fleas in general have a pretty bad reputation. At best they are a pest causing annoyingly itchy bites. At worst they are the carrier of bubonic plague, cause of the Black Death which wiped out over a third of the population of Europe in the 14th century.
Today we are going to look at a particularly unpleasant little fellow that, although not carrying any particularly deadly diseases, makes life miserable for thousands.
Despite its tiny size, the chigoe, chigger or jigger flea is a growing problem in the tropics. Originally only found in South and Central America the flea was accidentally spread to sub-Saharan Africa by human travel. Today these tiny bundles of itchy hate thrive anywhere warm where there is poverty and lack of hygiene. In areas where the fleas are found they can infect up to half the population.
The chigoe flea’s mode of infestation is to burrow head first into the skin leaving only a small part of the rear end protruding. This is for breathing, excretion and mating.
Infections are most common in the feet and the flea will go for areas of softest skin, such as between the toes. This is because the jigger flea lives just under the soil surface, waiting for an unfortunate mammal host to come along, at which point it will hop on.
Once the flee has made itself at home it will begin gorging itself on the host’s blood and swell from around 1mm to the size of a small pea, all under the skin. Initially the signs of chigoe infection have been described as a rather “pleasant” itching. Unfortunately, this doesn’t last long and becomes increasingly intense. Further symptoms include bumps on the skin with tiny coils of flea poo protruding. Eventually the itching may be accompanied by pain, sometimes severe, as the flea grows inside its burrow.
Although a flea living under the skin is pretty gross, it is the range of complications and secondary infections that cause the biggest problems. Gangrene and tetanus can occur, along with a multitude of other pathogens carried by the fleas. The majority of these infections occur when the flea has died and begins to rot away under the host’s skin.
6. Bullet ant
If pain alone could kill then this little insect would be very deadly indeed. In fact so painful is the sting that entomologist Dr Justin Schmidt had to recalibrate his pain rating scale from a maximum of 4 to 4+ just to accommodate this little beast. He described the pain of this ant’s sting as:
Pure, intense, brilliant pain. Like fire-walking over flaming charcoal with a 3-inch rusty nail in your heel
To some extent the name is a clue; these aren’t called “bullet ants” because they in any way resemble a bullet. No, it is because the sting is allegedly about as painful as being shot!
Not only is the bullet ant’s sting the most painful insect sting known to man, it lasts for ages. Another of the ant’s names is the 24 hour ant which gives some idea about how long the agony goes on for.
Waves of burning, throbbing, all-consuming pain that continues unabated for up to 24 hours is how one person described this horrific experience.
So, the bullet ant is definitely one to avoid. Well, not if you are a member of the Satere-Mawe tribe in Brazil. They actually use the sting of this ant as part of the initiation ceremony for becoming a warrior. The test involves putting the hand inside a glove full of bullet ants for 10 minutes.