Do other bugs have anything similar to a hymenopteran’s stinger?

Question: I know that stingers on wasps, bees, ants, etc., are modified ovipositors, which helps them out in terms of defense […] this got me into thinking. Do other bugs have anything similar? 

This question emailed to us is quite intriguing and complex. Do other bugs have anything similar to a hymenopteran’s (e.g., wasps, bees, ants) stinger? 

Red imported fire ant, Solenopsis invicta with its stinger displayed. It’s being used defensively against the decapitating fly, Pseudacteon curvatus. Photo by Joanie (Me).

In short, yes. There are bugs with something similar to a stinger. Previous structures tend to be modified for injecting venom. For example, in Hymenoptera, stingers are modified ovipositors.

Many of us are familiar with ants, bees, and wasps. In addition, scorpions are also a commonly referred to Arthropod that can sting. Curiosity and fear surround animals that can inject venom.

Envenomation is the process by which venom is injected by the bite or sting of a venomous animal. Some insects and other arthropods use venom for a variety of reasons, such as capturing prey, defending themselves, facilitating parasitism, or for extra-oral digestion. The use of venom depends on the natural history of the insect in question. 

Just as there is a variety of uses for venom, there are different ways in which an insect injects venom. The injection apparatus and where the venom glands are present in the body differ among insects. An injection apparatus can be modified mouthparts (e.g., maxillary stylets/beak, mandibles, etc.), terminal antennal segments, cuticular spines (spins on the outside of a caterpillar’s body), or a modified ovipositor (i.e., a stinger). 

Research has shown evidence for 14 groups of insects that have independently evolved the ability to use venom for capturing prey or defense against predators. Here are a few examples of arthropods with structures that inject venom other than Hymenoptera with their stingers:

  • The scorpion beetle, Onychocerus albitarsis (Coleoptera: Cerambycidae). My favorite example of another Arthropod that can sting other than a hymenopteran is the longhorn beetle, Onychocerus albitarsis. This beetle stings with its antennae! The terminal (last) antennal segment looks like a scorpion’s stinger and has two pores that injects venom from special antennal glands. In fact, the delivery system of its venom is extremely similar to that of a scorpion – convergent evolution at its finest. Wonder what a sting from a scorpion beetle feels like? It’s reported to feel like a bee sting.
From figure 1 of Berkov, Rodríguez, & Centeno 2007. a shows the stinging antenna of the scorpion beetle. b shows a sting. The arrow shows the site of the sting. You can see the inflammation!
  • Assassin bugs (Hemiptera: Heteroptera: Reduviidae). There are many examples of heteropterans that can inject venom with their maxillary stylets of their mouthparts. The salivary glands contain the venom glands. Heteropteran venoms are known to liquify tissue and cause paralysis of their prey. When an assassin bug captures prey with is rostrum (i.e., beak), it injects a venomous saliva to liquefy its prey so that it can suck up the liquefied mush (an assassin bug’s mouth is kind of like a straw). This manner of prey capture and feeding is called extra-oral digestion.
Yellow-bellied assassin bug, Apiomerus flaviventris. Anza-Borrego, California. Photo by Joanie (Me)
  • Caterpillars (Lepidoptera). There are many examples of venomous caterpillars. Ever see a hairy caterpillar and decide that it’s best not to touch it? That’s because of the fear of envenomation, of course. Some caterpillars have cuticular spins (the “hairs”) that can inject painful venom. Its use is purely for defense (these caterpillars eat plants after all). I personally had a painful encounter with a buck moth caterpillar (Lepidoptera: Saturniidae: Hemileucinae) in Nuevo León, Mexico. I was coming down from a climb and accidentally brushed up against one on a bush. OUCH! That was more painful to me than a wasp sting! 
Buck moth larva, Hemileuca maia (Drury). Photo by Susan Ellis,
Buck moth larva sting. Pictured on the left is my arm right after receiving a painful sting from a caterpillar. The picture on the right is what the sting looked like a week later.
Puss caterpillar (Lepidoptera: Megalopygidae). Ecuador. Photo by Joanie (me).
  • Antlions (Neuroptera: Myrmeleontidae). Larvae of many neuropterans have mandibles which can inject venom into their prey. My favorite example are antlions. The larval stage of antlions are venomous predators of ants or other insects. They dig pits to trap their prey and then capture them with pincher-like jaws. These critters are also referred to as doodlebugs because of the marks they leave in the sand. 

Antlions rarely bite humans. However, when their life is threatened, they may bite. It’s reported to feel like a bee sting (big surprise, right?).

Antlion larva, Distoleon tetragrammicus. A picture of a museum specimen by user Hectonichus on Wikipedia. 
Ever see one of these? This is an antlion pit. Antlions use it to help capture prey. Then they use their venom to paralyze their prey. Picture from Vaz Viren on Wikipedia.

There you have it! Some examples of insects other than ants, bees, and wasps that inject venom.

Works Cited

Berkov, A., Rodríguez, N., & Centeno, P. (2008). Convergent evolution in the antennae of a cerambycid beetle, Onychocerus albitarsis, and the sting of a scorpion. Naturwissenschaften95(3), 257-261.

Hawkeswood, T. J. (2006). Effects of envenomation to a human finger and arm by the larva of an unidentified species of Myrmeleon (Neuroptera: Myrmeleontidae). Calodema7, 32-33.

Marcela Laura Monné, Miguel Angel Monné, and Qiao Wang. “General morphology, classification, and biology of Cerambycidae.” Cerambycidae of the World-Biology and Pest Management (2017).

Sahayaraj, K., Kanna, A. V., & Kumar, S. M. (2010). Gross morphology of feeding canal, salivary apparatus and digestive enzymes of salivary gland of Catamirus brevipennis (Servile)(Hemiptera: Reduviidae). Journal of the Entomological Research Society12(2), 37-50.

Walker, A. A., Robinson, S. D., Yeates, D. K., Jin, J., Baumann, K., Dobson, J., … & King, G. F. (2018). Entomo-venomics: The evolution, biology and biochemistry of insect venoms. Toxicon154, 15-27.

About JoanieTheEntomologist

PhD candidate in entomology.
This entry was posted in Behavior, Evolution and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Do other bugs have anything similar to a hymenopteran’s stinger?

  1. jonrichfield says:

    If I had read about Onychocerus albitarsis in an SF story or a traveller’s tale, I would have rejected it as ridiculous!

    That is THE most nearly unbelievable bit of zoology I have seen in years and years. It is reminiscent of the venomous pincer of som Pseudoscorpionids. Thanks for posting the photo, otherwise I might not have believed it

    Apart from all the other amazement, I struggle to imagine how the bleep that evolved. It does not seem that any related species have anything like it. I looked it up in Wikipedia.

    Thanks for the revelation. Biology simply never ceases to amaze!


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