The terms “bite” and “sting” are often used interchangeably when describing arthropod envenomation incidents, but as many people are well aware, there is a big difference between venomous stings and venomous bites. There does not exist any arthropod species that can inflict both venomous bites and venomous stings. However, there are many arthropods that inflict venomous stings and non-venomous bites. For example, several ant species use their mandibles to bite into skin before inflicting a sting. By anchoring themselves onto skin with their mandibles, ants gain better control over their stinger.
Some ant species in the US that bite before inflicting one or more stings include red-imported fire ants, black-imported fire ants, and a few species of army ants. Luckily for Massachusetts residents, no biting and stinging ants have been found in the state, but the European fire ant, which is a non-native species that was first discovered in Massachusetts, inflicts stings that may lead to anaphylactic shock in sensitive individuals. And while they cannot sting, carpenter ants are known for inflicting painful bites with their relatively large and powerful mandibles, which they use to excavate wood for nesting purposes. The longhorn crazy ant, which can be found in Massachusetts, is also worth mentioning due to its habit of biting skin before spraying formic acid into the wound.
Generally, arthropods that bite, or inject venom from their mouthparts, resort to biting as a secondary form of defense, while arthropods that sting do so as their primary form of defense. This is one reason as to why envenomation incidents involving stings are far more common than those involving bites. Also, humans are more likely to encounter stinging arthropods, as opposed to venomous biting arthropods in urban and suburban areas. In the US, stinging bees, wasps and ants are responsible for the highest number of arthropod related fatalities annually, while venomous spider bite fatalities are virtually unheard of in the country.
Have you ever sustained a medically harmful spider bite?