They creep, they crawl, they’re tiny and they’re vicious. They’ve been around for more than 350 million years, longer than dinosaurs and flowering plants, and you can find them everywhere on earth, from freezing cold to baking hot regions. And there’s more than a million species of them — for each person reading this, there are 1.4 billion of them. What are they?
Insects, of course.
To make the grade as an insect, a critter must have three clear parts — a head, a thorax and an abdomen, plus three pairs of legs. Wings are optional and some have two or four wings. A centipede wouldn’t qualify (way too many legs). Neither would spiders (only two body parts and eight legs), many ticks, mites and scorpions.
Some insects are devilishly cute, such as beetles, ladybugs and butterflies, but others are no fun, like ticks, hornets, fleas, flies and ants. They suck, they sting, they bite and can make you terribly sick. The worst of them can kill you on the spot or give you a slow, painful, lingering death.
Here are the deadliest and most dangerous insects in our world, listed in ascending order.
If you see any of them in your hood, you know what to do — run like hell.
1. Puss Caterpillars
You might think this is the cuddliest insect you’ve ever seen — and you’d be so tragically wrong. With its ball-of-fur kittenish look, the so-called Puss Caterpillar looks like a charmer rather than a harmer. Some fashionistas, believe it or not, have even detected a distinct resemblance to a certain White House occupant who was famous for his carefully managed coiffure.
Word of advice: don’t muss that cute fur. Right under the hair are tiny, extremely toxic spines which can bring you into a world of pain once they get under your skin. And though it might not kill you, it could lay you low with anaphylaxis, a severe, life threatening allergic reaction. There’s a reason why they call it the most venomous caterpillar in the United States.
The sting of the Puss Caterpillar — also called a Toxic Toupee — has been compared to a bee sting, only worse. Once you’re stung, the pain immediately starts worsening and can even reach your bones. Depending on where you get stung and how many spines get under your skin, the agony can range from merely painful to howling awful. In some cases, the torture could last for as long as 12 hours.
2. Bot Flies
It could be something straight out of Alien. A squiggly, wriggly, very tiny, wormy parasite burrows into your skin, anchoring itself there with spiny hooks on its body, keeping its butt stuck out so that it can poop. It looks like it sounds, ugly and disgusting. For the next 21 days, it incubates like this under your skin, creating a boil-like swelling called a warble. When it reaches full size, it just plops out one fine day, lands on the ground and grows up to become — another botfly.
The adult botfly, which looks like a hairy, ugly-as-sin bumblebee, is a devious customer. It needs to get its eggs on to the skin of some mammal — pigs, cows, monkeys, sheep, and yes, humans. Knowing that mosquitos bites mammals, it ambushes them while they’re in flight, landing on them and laying a batch of eggs right on them.
The next time that mosquito bites you, the warmth of your skin will activate the botfly’s eggs to hatch in a few seconds. The larvae will emerge and dig into your skin, searching out places with delicate skin such as your tear ducts and eyelids.
Bot flies don’t cause disease or death and if you don’t mind a disgusting little larva using your skin as an incubator and pooping on you continuously, you’ll adore the botfly. It’s found mainly south of the US border, in Mexico and South America.
3. Murder Hornet
There’s a reason why the world’s largest wasp species, the Giant Asian Hornet, is known as the ‘murder hornet’. It crawls into the hives of peace-loving honeybees and attacks them savagely. A single hornet can rip off the heads of hundreds of honeybees and devastate the entire hive. They thought it was an oriental bug, mostly found in the area between Japan and Russia down to Thailand and Myanmar. But then it showed up in the USA a few years ago, and now everyone, especially beekeepers, are on high alert.
Although it looks pretty as a picture with its bulbous orange and yellow head and legs, the Murder Hornet can grow up to 1.5 inches long, with a stinger a quarter inch long. Being large, it also carries a good payload of really toxic venom, known to be strong enough to liquefy your skin.
What makes it truly dangerous is that unlike the more poisonous honeybee which loses its stinger once it stings you, this fellow can keep stinging you repeatedly, hitting you with up to 10 times more poison than a honeybee. The results of a bad date with this hornet can include paralysis, kidney failure and often a slow death. In Japan, about 40 people die every year from its venom.
The pain of the Giant Asian Hornet’s sting was compared by a Japanese entomologist to “a hot nail being driven into your leg”. Like mosquitoes, it is attracted to sweating humans and beer drinkers who smell sweet and might happen to be running through the woods. The really bad news is that one hornet’s sting releases pheromones that signals nearby hornets to come and join the party.
4. Driver Ants
If you’ve watched Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, you’ve seen a slightly dramatized version of this most powerful of ants, known variously as Driver Ants, Army Ants, Safari Ants or Siafu in Africa. In the film, the Russians chasing Indiana Jones have the bad luck of crashing into an anthill and disturbing a a few thousand Driver Ants that were just minding their own business peaceful-like.
There’s a lesson in the gruesome scene that follows — don’t mess with Driver Ants. Especially when they’re on the move looking for a new place to dig in and find food, they hate being disturbed or blocked. If you’re in their way, they’ll eat you. A swarm of these ants could finish off a grown human, spitting nothing out, in four hours flat.
A column of moving Driver Ants can have anything from 50 million to 200 million ants, sometimes cutting right through huts and homes. They’re totally blind and can’t see a thing, but don’t let that reassure you. They pick up scents and can attack accurately, delivering extraordinarily painful bites with their strong mandibles or jaws, which have been compared to metal shears.
If a Driver Ant gets its mandibles into you, best of luck with trying to dislodge it. It hangs on so tight that even if you broke the body off, the mandibles would stay stuck in your skin. The Masais of Kenya ingeniously use the ant’s powerful teeth as a suture for holding broken skin together while it heals.
5. Bullet Ants
The pain of being bitten by this hairy, ugly creepy-crawly has been compared to walking over flaming charcoal with a three-inch rusty nail through your heel. Others have described as being hit by a bullet, giving it its common name, the Bullet Ant. There is a good reason why the bite of this ant has been described as among the most painful in the insect world. On the 4-point Schmidt Sting Pain Index, the Bullet Ant rates a 4+. That should tell you something.
They’re biggies, growing up to two inches. When you see one for the first time, you might be reminded of toy ants that came alive somehow. They normally keep to themselves in the Central and South American forests where they live, seldom straying from the bases of the trees where they forage for spiders, centipedes and other insects. But get on their wrong side and you’ll likely have an encounter you won’t forget.
Their feet are naturally sticky so once they’re on your skin, you won’t easily brush them off. The deadly poison they inject into you with their sting, called poneratoxin, interferes with your nervous system, causing excruciating pain that comes and goes in waves but also, sometimes, numbness and paralysis. The good news is that the pain stays limited to the site of the bite and will generally disappear within 24 hours.
6. The Giant Silkworm Assassin Caterpillar
Say ‘caterpillar’ and most people would think of a plump, colorful little sausage crawling along a twig. Not the Giant Silkworm Moth caterpillar — or the Assassin Caterpillar, as it’s described. Far from being furry, this one seems to be covered with tiny ferns, giving it the appearance of an indoor plant. You might think it would be romantic to take one home for your girl friend.
Here’s a tip: don’t. You might not live to regret your mistake. The bristles of this predominantly South American insect release a potent toxin that can cause symptoms similar to gangrene all over your body, release chemicals that thin your blood and cause unstoppable bleeding, leading to brain hemorrhage and death.
They often hang around on trees in groups, forming pretty, innocuous, natural looking patterns. If you were to casual brush against one of them, you’d be stung multiple times in an instant. The bad news is that you wouldn’t feel a thing, and would even see any marks where you were stung.
A short while later, when you start throwing up, get a splitting headache and see blue-black blood clots appear all over you, you wouldn’t even suspect an Assassin Caterpillar attack. Which would be a pity because there’s an antidote available that could have saved your life.
7. Kissing Bug (Vampire Bug)
Imagine a bug that tiptoes into your bedroom while you sleep and kisses you on your lips so softly that you don’t even feel a thing. Sounds like true love? To the 300,000 or so people in Mexico, Central and South America who struggle with Chagas disease, there’s nothing even slightly romantic about the Kissing Bug’s kiss. Every year 12,000 or so people die worldwide as a result this loving bug’s bite.
In the 28 US states where it is found, it lays low during the day and emerge at night to go hunting for warm mammal blood. Although it usually goes for cattle, when it finds a juicy human, it likes to suck blood from the soft areas around the lips and cheek, puncturing the skin 2 to 15 times. Thanks to a natural anesthetic in the critter’s saliva, you won’t feel a thing, though you may see a cluster of pinprick bites on your face when you wake up.
Now comes the gross part. The Kissing Bug likes to take a dump right there after it’s sucked its fill of your blood. If the feces, which contain the Trypanosoma parasite, gets into your blood — that’s when the shit could really hit the fan, as it were. If you’re out of luck, this is when you could get infected with Chagas disease.
Infected persons may start with mild flu-like symptoms which improve without treatment as the parasites in the blood decrease. You may think you’re A-OK; just a little bite. But in about 20-30% of people with Chagas disease, serious symptoms appear 10 to 25 years later, ranging from an enlarged heart and irregular heart rhythms to a dilated esophagus and colon.
The little wingless flea doesn’t ask for much — just a cosy nook in your skin or hair to snuck into and slurp a nice meal of your warm, yummy blood. So if you’re one of those people who thinks of a flea infestation as something to protect your pet poodle from, think again. In Europe of the 14th century, the bubonic plague, a disease carried by fleas, is reckoned to have killed over 25 million people. And although there’s effective treatment for the disease, about 2,000 cases are still reported every year, in addition to deaths from flea-borne typhus.
And yes, your poodle could die from fleas too.
There are only about 3,000 plus flea species on the planet and a mere dozen or so of them are a threat to humans. Although there are species that go for cats and dogs, some prefer a diet of humans and pig blood. Since they can’t fly, they just hunker down is dust, dirt, carpets and cracks on the floor or walls, where they can go for months and months without eating, if necessary.
Fortunately for them, every night, you will snug into your beds to sleep — and it will be dinnertime for the fleas again.
It’s flat, oval, no larger than a grain of sand or sesame seed and It’ll usually hop on to your lower leg when you’re walking through grass or undergrowth. It’ll crawl up your leg till it finds a nice warm spot like a crotch or an armpit. Along the way, it may decide to stop for a quick drink of your true blood. That’s when this lethal little glutton will bloat up like a boil, getting so deformed that sometimes it may even appear headless.
Meet the tick, one of the world’s most truly dreadful insects. Why dreadful? Because a tick is a walking reservoir of bacteria, viruses and protozoa, and can cause such a wide variety of crippling, disabling diseases that diagnosing a tick-borne disease is one of medical science’s great challenges.
Over the last decade or so, about 16 diseases caused by tick bites have been identified, of which Lyme disease is perhaps the best known. Untreated Lyme disease can cause lifelong complications such as nerve damage, memory loss and dangerous inflammation around the heart. Other tick-borne diseases include Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, which kills 30% of untreated patients; babesiosis, which infects your red blood cells; and anaplasmosis, a bacterial infection regarded as even worse than Lyme disease, with complications including respiratory collapse, bleeding, organ failure and death.
If you see one of these little suckers on your skin, fat and bloated with your blood, pull it out carefully with tweezers — and then go see a doctor right away.
10. Tsetse Flies
It looks like a large housefly, perhaps between 0.2 to 0.6 inches long, but don’t get fooled. The bite of the tsetse fly causes, Human African Trypanosomiasis, better known as ‘sleeping sickness’. Without treatment, it is 100% fatal.
A slight reassurance might be that the tsetse fly is found only in one part of the world, sub-Saharan Africa. The bad news is that it’s estimated that between 50,000 and 5 million people die of sleeping sickness every year.
Unlike many insects, tsetse flies don’t lay eggs. Instead, in one of the most extraordinary births you could observe, a mother tsetse produces just one baby at a time, almost as large and as heavy as the mother herself. Go figure.
The early symptoms of sleeping sickness could feel commonplace: headache, fever, aching muscles and joints and fatigue. Drugs, if available, must be given carefully or else the parasite might become resistant to them. But as the disease progress, the parasite enters your brain and central nervous — and that’s when it gets serious. Contrary to popular belief, sleeping sickness doesn’t make you sleepy; it makes sleeping very difficult. Victims undergo personality changes, display confusion, poor coordination and numbness.
Death, when it comes, is almost a blessing.
The most lethal critter on the planet is small, heat-seeking, hardly visible and only recognizable by its irritating buzzing when it’s around your ears. It anesthetizes you before it starts sucking your blood. You won’t feel anything more than an itch as it drains you, consuming thrice its own weight in your blood. The problems start later.
Meet the not-so-ordinary mosquito, which kills more than a million people every year by infecting them with a slew of disease including malaria, dengue fever, West Nile fever, yellow fever, Zika, chikungunya and lymphatic filariasis. The big killer here is of course malaria, which kills about one person every 30 seconds.
Oh, if you love beer, skeeters love you. Beer increases your sweat’s ethanol content and body temperature. Ethanol turns mosquitoes on and the heat makes you easy to for the mosquito to find. Other mosquito magnets include obese people and people with blood type O, who probably just smell better to skeeters.