Paraponera is a genus of ant consisting of a single species, the so-called bullet ant (P. clavata), named on account of its powerful and potent sting, which is said to be as painful as being shot with a bullet. It is called by the locals “Hormiga Veinticuatro” or “24 (hour) ant”, from the 24 hours of pain that follow a stinging. The bullet ant inhabits humid lowland rainforests from Nicaragua south to Paraguay. Workers are 18-25 mm long and look like stout, reddish-black, wingless wasps.
The pain caused by this insect’s sting is purported to be greater than that of any other Hymenopteran, and is ranked as the most painful according to the Schmidt Sting Pain Index. It is described as causing “waves of burning, throbbing, all-consuming pain that continues unabated for up to 24 hours”. In some indigenous communities, to enter manhood a boy has to endure being stung by the ant 5 times without screaming. A paralyzing neurotoxic peptide isolated from the venom is poneratoxin.
Paraponera is predaceous and, like all primitive poneromorphs, does not display polymorphism in the worker caste. Colonies consist of several hundred individuals and are usually situated at the bases of trees, workers foraging arboreally in the area directly above the nest for insect prey and nectaries, often as far as the upper canopy.
The Satere-Mawe people of Brazil use intentional bullet ant stings as part of their initiation rites to become a warrior. The ants are first rendered unconscious by submerging them in a natural chloroform, and then hundreds of them are woven into a glove made out of leaves (which resembles a large oven mitt), stinger facing inward.
When the ants regain consciousness, a boy slips the glove onto his hand. The goal of this initiation rite is to keep the glove on for a full ten minutes. When finished, the boy’s hand and part of his arm are temporarily paralyzed because of the ant venom, and he may shake uncontrollably for days.
The only “protection” provided is a coating of charcoal on the hands, supposedly to confuse the ants and inhibit their stinging. To fully complete the initiation, however, the boys must go through the ordeal a total of 20 times over the course of several months or even years.
‘Becoming a man’ in the Setere-Mawe society means intentionally letting yourself get stung by these ants. Not just by one but by hundreds of them at once. And not just on one occasion. There, you are not a man until you have done this ritual twenty times.
Twenty times wearing a pair of gloves each laced with hundreds of live bullet ants, stingers pointing inward, for ten minutes at each go. At first it seems like a horrible practice almost on the level of honor killings, but the boys themselves really seem to have a positive outlook on it. And in America, kids cry when daddy gets them the wrong color car for their sixteenth birthday.