A bull ant, Myrmecia species. Image Credit: David McClenaghan

Australia's native bull ants are really just wingless wasps

  • February 05, 2018

Australian animals are good at stinging and biting, and our amazing bull ants contribute to that.

Tim Low Australian Geographic blogger contributor Wild Journey
Tim Low

Tim Low lives in a state of perpetual surprise at everything wild and alive. His response is to write searching books, Australian Geographic articles and this blog. His book Where Song Began (Penguin, 2014) recently became the first nature book ever to win the Australian Book Industry Award for best general non-fiction. Tim's newest book is called The New Nature.

AMONG THE WORLD'S largest ants, they will readily punish anyone who loiters near their nest. Their jaws are remarkably long, but be warned, it is the rear end that dispenses the sting. The larger ones are armed with six times as much venom as a honeybee.

There are small species called jack-jumpers that will leap onto your ankles if you displease them. I remember the time I ran over a jack-jumper nest with a mower. I couldn’t get away fast enough.

That said, bull-ant stings are usually no worse than bee stings, unless you are allergic, in which case they are dangerous. Australian coronial records from 1980 to 1999 tell of six deaths attributed to anaphylaxis from bull ants, mostly from jack-jumpers.  

Ants are a group of wasps that adopted a crawling lifestyle, and bull ants make that obvious. As one of the oldest ant groups they have very wasp-like bodies. Less sophisticated than most ants, they don’t lay down scent trails or travel in lines. They have small colonies, with a few hundred or at most a few thousand residents, compared to millions in some ants.

Australians often wonder why we have so many stinging creatures. Why so many dangerous snakes, and why the super-deadly Sydney funnelweb? These questions lack satisfying answers. As for bull ants, they happen to be Australian only because they died out everywhere else.

bull ant

Bull ant spotted in bushland surrounding Swifts Creek, Victoria. (Image Credit: fir0000/flagstaffotos.com.au)

Deep in the past they were a global success. Bull ant fossils have been found in Canada, Colorado, Germany, Denmark and Argentina, going back 50 million years. They were probably around early enough to have stung dinosaurs. With a cosmopolitan past there is no reason to suppose the first bull ant evolved here. Australia is very rich in ants, and for bull ants it has provided an enduring home, as it has for many old lineages.

I like watching bull ants. Most ants are so tiny and so plentiful they lack individuality, but bull ants are large enough that you can see their eyes as they turn to face you. (They are more visual than most ants.) I often wonder what they are thinking. Rather than teeming about they move in a considered way.    

They have attracted admirers over the years. In A Lady's Visit to the Gold Diggings of Australia in 1852-53, Mrs Charles Clacy lauded their courage:

“They do not  like the English ones  run scared away at the sight of a human being -- not a bit of it; Australian ants have more pluck, and will turn and face you. Nay, more, should you retreat, they will run after you with all the impudence imaginable.”

I have been stung by them again and again but I’m glad to have them around because they give the word ‘ant’ a richer meaning. They are ants with attitude.