The secrets of venom
Ngā mea huna a te paitini

Venomous bugs use stings, bites, and injections in attack and defence. They hurt, paralyse, and kill. But how might we use them in medicine?

Dondale's water spider

Secret: Fisherbug

Dondale’s water spider rests its feet on the water’s surface, feeling for vibrations. When it senses a small fish, it runs across the water and pounces, paralysing its prey with venom. 

Then it drags the fish out, injects it with digestive enzymes, and begins its long feast.

Dondale's water spider

Caption

Dondale's water spider, 2016. Te Papa

New Zealand giant centipede

Secret: Deadly limbs

Venom isn’t always delivered with a sting or bite. Centipedes use a pair of pincer-like limbs to inject their prey with venom.

The New Zealand giant centipede can grow up to 16 centimetres long. How many legs does it have? That depends on its age, but it’s never 100!

New Zealand giant centipede

Caption

New Zealand giant centipede, 2016. Te Papa

Chilean rose tarantula

Secret: Medicinal venom

The Chilean rose tarantula uses its venom to paralyse its prey. But that venom might come in handy for you humans. 

In some damaged human hearts, small channels let calcium through, triggering spasms. The tarantula’s venom can block these channels, making it a potential heart medicine.

Secret: Hair attacks

A venomous bite isn’t the only weapon available to the Chilean rose tarantula. It can release hairs from its abdomen too. They have tiny barbs that irritate the skin and cause swelling. Any predator getting a noseful backs off quickly!

Chilean rose tarantula

Caption

Chilean rose tarantula, 2016. Te Papa

Tarantula hawk

Secret: Paralysing parent

The female tarantula hawk has the second-most-painful sting in the insect world. After mating, she uses her venom to paralyse a tarantula – much bigger than her, and deadly to most bugs. 

She buries the tarantula with a single egg. When it hatches, the larva uses the tarantula as a living food supply!

Tarantula hawk

Caption

Tarantula hawk, 2016. Te Papa

Malaysian forest scorpion

Secret: Tail-tip stinger

Scorpions use their stingers to defend themselves and paralyse their prey. The Malaysian forest scorpion can deliver a powerful venomous sting – but for most of its attacks, it prefers to use those large pincers.

Secret: Ultraviolet glow

Scorpions glow blue-green under ultraviolet light. Scientists aren’t sure if they benefit from this, or if it’s just a quirk of nature. 

It certainly helps them to be found in the dark with an ultraviolet lamp though!

Malaysian forest scorpion

Caption

Malaysian forest scorpion, 2016. Te Papa

Velvet ant

Secret: Long stinger

The velvet ant isn’t actually an ant – it’s a wasp. 

The female’s bright colours warn predators about her sting, which isn’t very toxic but is extremely painful. Her stinger can be half as long as her body!

Velvet ant

Caption

Velvet ant, 2016. Te Papa

Bullet ant

Secret: Long-lasting venom

Who has the most painful sting in the bug world? Scientists think it’s the bullet ant. Its venom causes shaking, paralysis, and up to 24 hours of pain. 

It’s an excellent defence against predators, but the ant rarely uses its venom on prey – it feeds mostly on sugar-rich nectar.

Bullet ant

Caption

Bullet ant, 2016. Te Papa

Eastern cicada killer

Secret: Meals on wings

The female eastern cicada killer uses her venom to paralyse cicadas. She doesn’t eat them though. Instead, she airlifts these heavy bugs to her nest. 

If she plans to lay a male egg, one cicada is enough to feed the larva – females get up to three.

Eastern cicada killer

Caption

Eastern cicada killer, 2016. Te Papa

King baboon spider

Secret: Bark before bite

The king baboon spider’s venom is powerful enough to kill birds and snakes. 

When it’s threatened, it rears up and makes a hissing sound by rubbing its first and second legs together. Any creature that ignores the warning could get a nasty bite.

King baboon spider

Caption

King baboon spider, 2016. Te Papa

Io moth

Secret: Stinging bristles

Before the Io moth looks like this, it’s a bright-green caterpillar with bristles all over its body. They release venom at the slightest touch, causing pain and swelling. Not so cute!

Lo moth

Caption

Lo moth, 2016. Te Papa