Taking the Sting Out of Ants

A year or so ago one of our local newspaper columnists, Clay Thompson, wrote that ants don’t have stingers (“If nothing else, I know I’m not Montini and ants can bite.” Arizona Republic, Jul. 4, 2012).

That got me to thinking that why there might be so much confusion about whether ants (and other arthropods) bite, sting, both or neither. Take for example Dr. Seuss, who was so confused that he drew bees with stingers on their head.

Let’s first take a look at what a stinger is.

A stinger is a part of the body in certain arthropods that is used to deliver venom into another organism. It is found at the end of the abdomen or metasoma. The stinger may be used for subduing prey and/or for defense. This type of stinger is found in only two groups of arthropods: insects of the order Hymenoptera (ants, bees, and wasps) and arachnids of the order Scorpiones (scorpions). In the Hymenoptera, the stinger is a modified egg-laying tube, so only the females can have one. In scorpions, both sexes have stingers.



(Photograph of Dinoponera australis by April Nobile / © AntWeb.orgCC-BY-SA-3.0)

Do ants have stingers? Part of the confusion may erupt because some kinds of ants, like the Dinoponera above, do have a stinger (seen protruding at end of metasoma), whereas other species of ants do not. Lacking a stinger does not mean that those ants are not defended. They may still bite (with their mandibles) and also may spray irritating defensive chemicals.

To make things even more confusing, some species of ants, the most infamous being the fire ants, bite and sting in a combined action. The irritated worker ant grabs the skin of the person with its mandibles, draws up a section to be targeted, and then curves its metasoma around and introduces the stinger. It is kind of an insulting double-whammy.

Here in Arizona, we have more that our share of prickly and stinging things, so I’m not sure why Clay Thompson miffed this one. Perhaps many people, including Clay, fail to find the exact method of delivery of pain of any importance and simply swat the offending insect away without identifying what happened to them. To them, bite or sting, the end results are the same.

What do you think?

See what other bloggers have to say:

Biting and Stinging:  The Ants at 6Legs2Many

Why do only some ants sting? by Alex Wild at ScienceBlogs

Alex Wild also brings up the very good question: “Why do so many tropical ants sting, while those in Boreal latitudes never do?” at Myrmecos

Edit: And yet another reference to Alex Wild, Ouch! Insect Bites and Stings Up-Close (PHOTOS) at Weather.com