This colorful, solitary wasp uses its stinging power to paralyze large tarantulas as food for its young. While the insect is not aggressive and rarely stings humans — "you really have to force them to sting you," said Leslie Boyer — the experience is fabled to be one of the top most painful stings out there.
According to sting expert Schmidt, the tarantula hawk rates just below the agonizing bullet ant.
"When that one when it hits you, it almost feels like you've been hit by a lightning bolt," said Schmidt. "You'll be screaming and writhing in agony. … It feels like every gland in your body is purged of all its hormones, you'll feel absolutely drained from the experience."
Unlike other animals on this Top 10 list, the tarantula hawk's venom is not for defense, but for paralyzing its much larger prey, tarantulas. The mother wasp lays a single egg on the comatose spider, dooming it to a horrific death. The egg hatches into a hungry larva, which then literally eats the tarantula alive, using it as a food source as it grows.
In terms of a perfect combo of pain and lethality, the homely stonefish's sting may take first prize.
The stonefish, found in the rocky, shallow waters of tropical oceans, has several extremely sharp spines along its back. Hapless waders can easily mistake the well-camouflaged fish for a rock or hunk of coral — and if they step on the animal, the spines will puncture the skin and inject a complex and deadly venom.
The pain from the sting is described as instant and intense. One victim described the experience on an online aquarium enthusiasts' forum:
"I got spiked on the finger by a stonefish in Australia … never mind a bee sting. … Imagine having each knuckle, then the wrist, elbow and shoulder being hit in turn with a sledgehammer over the course of about an hour. Then about an hour later imagine taking a real kicking to both kidneys for about 45 minutes so that you couldn't stand or straighten up. I was late 20s, pretty fit physically and this was the tiniest of nicks. Got sensation back in my finger after a few days but had recurrent kidney pains periodically for several years afterwards."
Other stories describe sting victims wanting to have their stung limb amputated from their body.
Hoech of the Monterey Bay Aquarium has worked closely with the stonefish, and he agreed that the animal "is definitely at the top of the list" of the most pain-producing creatures.
"I never want a bad black widow bite," said Leslie Boyer, referring to the poisonous spider found all over the southern United States.
Although 95 percent of the spiders' bites are trivial, if you're unlucky enough to get nipped by a large, healthy black widow where your skin is thin, the experience can be excruciating.
Leslie Boyer described the time when a rural doctor called her up about an athletic 20-something man who had been bitten.
"The patient had looked at him and said 'It hurts too much to breathe,' and then he just stopped," she said. "To be awake enough to say that, and then willingly stop breathing — that's got to be intense pain."
The black widow bite doesn't hurt initially, as the fangs are small. But an hour and a half later, the venom, which contains a toxic ingredient that interacts with the body's muscles, causes extreme cramping throughout the body.
"Imagine every muscle in a spasm at the same time, and they won't relax for days," said Leslie Boyer.