Ask Your Weird Animal Questions: Insect Edition: Wings & Stings

Whether they’re singing, stinging, or splattering your windshield, insects are back for the summer season.

Maybe that’s why readers wanted the buzz on bugs in this week’s Ask Your Weird Animal Questions. We’ll start with this gnawing question:

What insect has the worst bite? —Doug Rhodehamel via Facebook

Bullet ant (Paraponera clavata) in Iquitos, Peru. Photograph by Robert Pickett/Papillo/Alamy

The person to ask is Justin Schmidt, a research entomologist at the University of Arizona in Tucson who knows a thing or two about painful bites. (Watch a video of Schmidt in his research lab.) His Schmidt sting pain index gauges how much different bugs’ bites hurt on a scale of 0 to 4, with 4 being the most painful.

To rate numerous species and vividly describe their stings, Schmidt has personally endured many bites. (Related: “The Worst Places to Get Stung by a Bee: Nostril, Lip, Penis.”)

According to the Schmidt pain index, the bullet ant has the meanest sting of all, at 4.0+.

Schmidt describes the bite of this rain forest insect as “pure, intense, brilliant pain. Like fire-walking over flaming charcoal with a three-inch rusty nail in your heel,” which lasts for up to 24 hours. (Watch a video on bullet ants.)

It is not unusual among parasitic wasps for only the females to have wings. Are there any non-hymenopterous insects—meaning those that are not bees, wasps, ants, sawflies, or horntails—with winged females and wingless males? Robert C. Brooke 

“[That’s a] good and interesting question, and one that I’m working on currently by coincidence,” says Andrew Polaszek, head of the Division of Terrestrial Invertebrates at London’s Natural History Museum, via email. “There are many examples of insects in which males are wingless and females fully winged.”

One common reason is that males mate with sisters or other females close to where they hatch, so they don’t need to disperse. Among fig wasps, for instance, “males are severely reduced in many morphological respects, except what matters for sex.”

Adds Polaszek: “I have recently come across an example of a wingless, blind, non-feeding male ‘fairy fly’ (not very aptly named in this case) whose sole purpose in life is clearly sex and nothing else.” Polaszek is currently seeking a female match for this monofocused male.

Another reason for winglessness? It’s “often characteristic of males who fight each other to win females.”

Other insect species in which the females have wings and the males don’t include bark and ambrosia beetles (scolytids), thrips, ants, and some bees, Polazsek says. “Often males in these species are polymorphic”—an adaptation in which they assume different forms in adulthood, such as being winged or wingless, to find mates in different ways.

“Years ago I saw the most psychedelic insect, the Oleander Moth, also known as the Polka Dot Wasp Moth, though it isn’t a wasp. I’d like to know more about them.”  Lynn Finch via Facebook 

Oleander moth Syntomeida epilais commonly called the polka dot wasp moth insects bugs garden pest
Oleander moth (Syntomeida epilais). Photograph by Florida Images/Alamy

No wonder you noticed this flower-loving fashionista of the insect world! Brilliantly colored and patterned, this moths starts out as the oleander caterpillar, a bright orange insect covered with long, black bristles. According to the University of Florida, the Caribbean native ranges from northern South America up to Central America. It’s also found in Florida and southern Georgia.

The St. Augustine Record says the moth is immune to the typically toxic oleander plant, and exposure to it makes the moth toxic to predatory birds.

Also unusual: As opposed to most moths, this one is active in the daylight. Lucky us: That makes it easier to see these beautiful creatures.

Does anybody know what a surot is? chocaloy, Las Vegas 

Bed bugs, Cimex lectularius
Bedbug (Cimex lectularius). Photograph by Edwin Remsberg/Alamy

Avelino Raymundo of the University of the Philippines at Los Banos Graduate School does.

He says “surot” is a Tagalog word for “bedbug,” those nasty little critters that infest our beds and drink our blood while we sleep.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, bedbugs aren’t dangerous—unless you’re allergic to them—but are obviously plenty annoying. They’re highly active too. In fact, these little creepers can bite up to 500 times in a single night. (Watch a video about bedbugs.)

Sweet dreams!

Got a question about the wild and wonderful animal world? Tweet me or leave me a note on Facebook. 

Liz Langley is the award-winning author of Crazy Little Thing: Why Love and Sex Drive Us Mad and has written for many publications including Salon, Details and the Huffington Post. Follow her on Twitter @LizLangley and at www.lizlangley.com
  • prachi nanavati

    the moth is really attractive with its unique colors and polka dots….

  • Rino

    Are there any sure method of getting rid of bed bugs?

  • Luis Algarin

    How about this one, that despite never had been bitten by one, well, you know those urban legends that may result even in lose of the affected part due to necrosis:Nepa cinerea?

  • mary

    OK… cool… a lot about mating…

  • Felicia

    Back in 2007 I was on a white sand beach in Puerto Rico photographing wild horses that were right along the water. I noticed my legs starting to burn a little, but being a professional photographer I was to excited about what was going on in front of me. I eventually looked down and fire ants were up to my hips. I dropped everything and ran into the ocean. They bit me on my legs, in between my toes, all over my torso. I had welts all over the lower part of my body for over 2 months. Was horrible. I don’t want to experience anything worse than that!

  • sean

    this is cool I didn’t know that till just now

  • Linda Poust

    Is there anything that stings that does not have wings?

  • JB

    Linda…yes, plenty. In the U.S. there are puss caterpillars (look very furry but DON’T TOUCH, it’s gonna hurt a lot), velvet ants (they’re actually wasps), various species of scorpions (I can think of 5 or 6 different kinds off the top of my head), I think a few other caterpillars can sting, harvester and fire ants (harvester ants are worse but I don’t find them nearly as defensive as fire ants, and probably a number of others I can’t think of 🙂

  • william Ruskovich

    While growing up I was stung over one hundred times after throwing rocks at a yellow Jacket nest. I learned a lesson that lasted all year. I made the same mistake the next year experimenting on why this happened the year before. Nobody ever called me smart!

  • jiminy

    my friend told me echo moth caterpillars are poisonous and she”s real trustworthy. i wanna know though, are they ACTUALLY poisonous?

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