What is the most powerful and dangerous insect venom in the world?

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Photo credit: Gailhampshire

The insect with the most powerful venom is not present in France. This is the harvester ant (Pogonomyrmex maricopa). It lives in the arid, desert regions of the southwest United States and northern Mexico. If you travel to these places, you might come across her. But ultimately, what are you really risking if you get stung?

Definition of venom “potency”

The potency of a venom can be determined by its toxicity (the dose needed to cause a lethal effect), how effectively it incapacitates or kills prey, or the intensity of the pain or symptoms it causes. However, humans are not among the potential prey of insects. So, for us, the potency of the venom can instead be measured in terms of how dangerous it is or how much pain it inflicts.

Toxicity versus dangerousness

The toxicity of a venom is often measured by its LD50 (lethal dose for 50% of a population tested). But it goes without saying that the frequency of interactions with humans also plays a role in the perception of its dangerousness.

The harvester ant does not choose our homes but stays outside, attracted by lawns and playgrounds. It feeds on seeds as well as small insects and arthropods, dead or alive. They are the ones who really have to fear their bites.

If the harvester ant is objectively the one with the most powerful venom, the bullet ant (Paraponera clavata) is more feared because its sting is extremely painful.

Variation in sensitivity to venom

It is also important to remember that the reaction to venom varies considerably from one individual to another, depending on personal sensitivity, state of health, age, etc. In addition, within the same species, there can be variations in the composition and potency of the venom.

The life of the harvester ant

Pogonomyrmex maricopa is a medium-sized ant, usually reddish or brownish in color. It is identifiable by its robust body, its prominent mandibles and the frequent presence of a dorsal spine on the thorax. They are known to exhibit aggressive behavior when disturbed.

Since it feeds primarily on seeds, it plays an important role in seed dispersal and regulating plant populations. Regarding its daily life, it is very usual for an ant: it lives in organized colonies, with a clear division of labor between the workers, the males and the queen.

Dangerous but interesting

Due to the power of its venom, Pogonomyrmex maricopa is of interest to scientists in more than one way.

Its venom contains a complex mixture of compounds, including peptides, enzymes, and other bioactive molecules. These compounds can interact specifically with biological systems, including nerve receptors in animals and humans.

Components of harvester ant venom can be used to understand how these signaling pathways work. By identifying the specific receptors that the venom targets, researchers can better understand the mechanisms underlying pain.

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