Poisonous and venomous insects and spiders
Friday, December 1st, 2023
Stop complaining about mosquitoes and gnats. You may hate getting stung by a bee but your interaction with an insect can be far worse. The Science of Forensic Entomology (a textbook co-authored by biologist David Rivers) has a separate chapter about insects that produce toxins capable of killing people under certain circumstances. Loyola magazine invited same Rivers to introduce lay people like us to some of the deadliest insects on the planet, and he was pleased to accept the invitation
What makes an insect deadly?
“Insects can fall into two categories, one where the individual produces something that is so painful or so lethal that one individual insect is lethal to you. Most of those do not occur in North America, but a few do occur in South America,” Rivers informs.
“Then there are those that produce a painful toxin that may indeed be lethal, but it’s when they attack as a group that they truly become deadly. In that regard, we do have some that are close by: There are two, and they are both ant species.”
Meet the insects
The Cow Killer
“When it’s just a few, it’s not lethal. But if the cow steps on any, a chemical signal in the venom gland, an alarm pheromone, is released that mobilizes the colony for group attack. There’s venom coming from the saliva, and then there’s a true venom gland, so they’ll sting you and bite you. So you’ll get a double dose,” Rivers says. At that point a person with a suppressed immune system or a small child could be at serious risk.
The Red Imported Fire Ant
Although a solitary fire ant is incapable of killing an individual, “they are known to be one of the most aggressive insects that exists,” Rivers informs. “They will actually chase you. They’re among the top 10 threats to agriculture because they will destroy anything in their path.”
Nothing has been 100 percent effective in treating them so pest control companies won’t usually guarantee that they can get rid of them. “The only thing that will slow them down is winter, and even that’s not 100 percent effective,” Rivers says. “They have killed people—usually young people. And they are relentless.”
Japanese Oriental Wasp
“It’s one of the most aggressive insects on the planet. Close to hundreds can sting you at a time, and they’re stinging you multiple times. Thus, the payload of venom delivered by the wasp to the victim is believed to exceed that of any other venomous animal. I hear the pain is one of the most excruciating that can be delivered,” says Rivers. This wasp inhabits remote locations, including some isolated islands allied with Japan.
Black Widow Spider
You perhaps won’t die from a bite from a Black Widow, but there’s absolutely nothing pleasant about the experience. Rivers said, “I saw a special on National Geographic where a couple people said, ‘I wish I had died since it really hurt.’ One woman had lasting effects afterward. For weeks or months they were miserable, but no lasting effects after that. But if the toxin targets the nervous system, that’s where you could have long-term complications.”