Written by Frank Tucker
One of the fondest memories from my Army days is when I took an Entomology class while attending Preventive Medicine training. The teacher came in and started talking about zoology in general and then honed in on arthropods…mainly insect and arachnids. As you can imagine, it was a visual class and we got more than we bargained for. The teacher would talk about an arthropod, show a picture then pull them out of his pockets…literally. As the lecture continued, the arthropod became deadlier. We thought…surely, he won’t be pulling this out of his pocket, but to our surprise he did. I remember when he spoke of scorpions…all of us began to cringe as we thought of the notion of him bringing one out of his pocket. He went on to the next arthropod then said “by the way…” and you get the picture, out came a scorpion. Needless to say it was by far one of the most fascinating classes I had in the Military and certainly one of the most entertaining. It impacted me so much that I chose to do an internship with the Entomologist as part of my training. Now I’m certainly no expert in Entomology, but I did stay at a “Holiday Inn”. In all seriousness, that training proved useful in a number of deployments where I served as the Preventive Medicine officer helping to prepare and protect our Service Members. Insects have been in existence for millions of years and have successfully adapted to almost every climate condition. Many insects are known to benefit human health while others can be public health concerns, resulting in thousands of deaths each year. Even the insects that we consider pests play an important role in the environment, though some can be downright deadly. I thought this top 10 list would be full of exotic creatures such as caterpillars and centipedes or predatory arthropods such as spiders and scorpions however; they really are not insects though they are arthropods. So here it is…my top 10 list of deadly insects (not all arthropods) ramping up from the least to the most deadly.
10. Fire Ants
The African Fire ant was accidentally imported into the US in 1918 and had colonized this land exceptionally well. These ants typically nest in soil or sand, building large mounds and generally feed on plants, and occasionally on some smaller insects. The fire ant kills its prey by stinging and injecting venom called Solenopsin. The sting initially causes a burning sensation, and turns into a painful bump that lasts for days. Although, a couple of stings may not be detrimental to your health, an angry aggressive swarm that “bites all at once” poses a health risk. Up to 5% of individuals are allergic to the fire ant sting and in these cases one encounter could be deadly. Fire ants are responsible for more than 80 fatalities have been reported from fire ant-induced anaphylaxis. I will actually break out in hives all over…fortunately no anaphylaxis. Bees however, are another story.
9. Siafu (African Army Ants)
Commonly found in Central and East Africa, Siafu are blind ants, which travel in colonies with the help of pheromones (chemical factor that insects secret to trigger a response from other members of the same species). A single Siafu sting cannot affect your health, but if you are attacked by a complete army (up to 50,000,000 ants in a single colony), you are in for some trouble. Around 40-50 people die every year through Siafu bites, with the young and elderly being the most susceptible.
Wasp stings can be a health concerns to those who are allergic. Around 50-60 people die every year due to a severe allergic reaction caused by the venom that is secreted during a sting. Although a common reaction may only result in minor pain and redness, a severe reaction may result in difficulty breathing, pale skin, confusion, unconsciousness, and even death. People who have an allergic reaction to an insect sting have a 60% chance of a similar or worse reaction if they are stung again.
7. Giant Hornet
These hornets have quite a massive size…as big as your thumb…and their sting is not only lethal due for allergic reactions, but they also deposit many toxins when they sting their victim. Their venom contains around 8 compounds, which causes pain and damages soft tissues. The venom is so noxious that it can cause death, even without allergic reaction, if the dose is large enough. In fact the venom can actually attract other hornets to the victim and since an adult Giant Hornet can fly 50 miles a day, it will be tough to get away. Around 70 people die each year due to allergic reactions or excessive introduction of a neurotoxin called mandaratoxin into the body.
6. Kissing Bugs
These bugs thrive on the blood of vertebrates and invertebrates, transmitting a tiny parasite called Trypanosoma cruzi that can be dangerous for human health. This parasite causes Chagas Disease, which starts out as an innocent swelling around the bite, but is followed by intestinal and cardiac problems, killing up to 50,000 people every year. Kissing bugs live in the Southern US, Mexico, Central and South America commonly found beneath porches, hiding in cracks in the wood, in rock piles coming out at night to seek its prey.
These relentless, plant-consuming insects belong to a sub-family of grasshoppers. Although they do not kill humans directly, these insects emerge by the millions and their swarms can completely destroy farmlands in their frenzy to eat everything in sight. Every year, swarms of locusts devastate thousands of acres of croplands, which indirectly kill thousands of people indirectly due to famine and starvation.
4. Africanized Honey “Killer” Bee
Africanized honey bees travel in swarms, the danger is further aggravated because when a single bee attacks its victims, it triggers the swarm to follow suit. To add insult to injury, the African honey bee reacts ten times faster to disturbances than native bees. These insects earned their name as “killer bees” because they seek out and kill the native queen bee and take over the hive for their own. Don’t let the name “killer bee” fool you, any honey bee can deadly for those allergic. I happen to be one of those with a deadly allergy to bees and carry an anaphylaxis kit for safe measures.
3. Tsetse Fly
Found in Kalahari and Saharan deserts, this fly looks similar to a normal house fly but thrives on vertebrate blood. This fly affects the health of a person by hosting a parasite that is transferred to its victim’s bloodstream through bites causing a disease called sleeping sickness. It transmits the deadly protozoa (trypanosomes), which shuts down the essential body functions. Although, such a small creature may seem harmless, tsetse flies kill around 3,000,000 people every year in Africa across 36 sub-Saharan countries.
Fleas are not just the companions of your household pets, but can affect your health by spreading Bubonic Plague through the transfer of the Yersinia Pestis bacteria, from rats to the human body. Although, there are many different types of fleas, the ones that live on rats pose the greatest danger. Fleas feed on the blood of vertebrates, breeding and infesting their host rather quickly. The minute wounds caused by flea bites and irritated by intense scratching can result in swelling, redness and even allergic reactions. Fleas are the insidious carriers killers of several of the world’s worst epidemics to date – the Black Death, which claimed over 375 million (this is not a typo) in the 14th century Europe and Asia. Although plague has been held at bay in recent history, fleas remain willing partners to spread disease in the next epidemic.
Mosquitoes do not only act as outside summer party crashers but can wreak havoc with your health by claiming at least 2 million lives each year. It is the female mosquito that is the most difficult to handle, as they require fresh blood to lay eggs. Much like our friend the flea, when an infected female mosquito bites her victims, she readily transfers deadly diseases like Malaria, Dengue, Yellow Fever, West Nile Virus, or several forms of Encephalitis through her saliva. Mosquito borne illness is responsible for over 350-500 million cases of Malaria and 50-100 million cases of Dengue.