The Chemical Compositions of Insect Venoms

Sreelakshmi P Vijayan
Updated on

Insect venoms are indeed complicated. You could be exonerated for thinking that it will be relatively a simple composition of chemicals which creates an aching sensation during a bee or wasp sting, but the fact is that, it’s a highly complex mixture of all classes of compounds – proteins, peptides, enzymes, and many other smaller molecules that goes with a small amount of venom. The range of components are too vast to detail each and every single one – but let’s examine some of the major constituents in bee, wasp and ant venom.

Venomzootoxin is a kind of toxin secreted by an animal/insect which actively delivers through a wound by means of a, sting, bite or related action. This venom is transported through a specifically developed part of the insect such as fangs or a stinger, known as venom apparatus through a process called envenomation. Venom is quite different from poison, which is a toxin that is passively delivered by being consumed, inhaled, or absorbed through the skin whereas venom comprises one or more biological toxins that is physically transferred by an animal to the peripheral surface of another animal.

Venoms destroy over the action of at least of four major classes of toxin, specifically necrotoxins and cytotoxins (which exterminate cells), neurotoxins (which affect central nervous systems), myotoxins (which mutilates muscles) and haemotoxins (which disrupt blood clotting). Venomous creatures nearly cause ten thousand human deaths per annum.

Bee Venom

bee venom
  • Melittin, also referred as apitoxin, is a peptide and a major toxic constituent of bee venom comprising around 50-55% of dry venom. It can breakdown and destroy cells. Nevertheless, it’s not well-thought-out to be the most harmful component of bee venom.
  • Phospholipase A, comprises 10-12% of dry venom. This enzyme destroys phospholipids, and break down the blood cell membranes, resulting in cell destruction. Additionally, it induces the release of pain causing agents.
  • Hyaluronidase, this enzyme supports the venom’s action by catalyzing the division of protein-polysaccharide complexes in tissue, permitting the toxins to infiltrate more into the epidermis.
  • Apamin, passes through the blood-brain barrier thereby attacking the central nervous system to blocks channels.
  • MCD peptide, leads the degranulation of mast cells (a kind of WBC) causing the release of histamine, an inflammatory agent.

Wasp Venom

wasp venom
  • Wasp kinin, a peptide that constitutes a major portion of wasp venom. The components present in it are not yet fully categorized.
  • Acetylcholine, increases the stimulation of pain nerves. They are predominantly high in concentration in hornet stings.

Ant Venom

Ant Venom
  • Formic acid, the major component of ant venom. High concentration of formic acid was observed in those that sprays their venom despite of sting.
  • Piperidine alkaloids, are a class of compounds found in fire ant venom. Mostly contribute to the pain during fire ant stings.
  • Fire ant venom consists of only about 0.1% of the dry venom, with the vast majority of a class of compounds called alkaloids, which are highly toxic to cells resulting a burning sensation.

Bee stings are acidic & Wasp stings are alkaline

You might have studied in your science classes that bee stings are acidic while wasp stings are alkaline. So can it be neutralized with an alkali or with an acid? Sadly, this is somewhat intransitive and misleading. While it’s true to the knowledge that bee venom has some sort of acidic components in it whilst wasp venom contains some basic residents. But the fact is that, once you’ve been stung, the venom rapidly penetrates into the tissue. Consequently, external application of an acid or alkali over the stung part probably provide no relief. Furthermore, the venom is a complex mixture of components partaking contributing effects. Hence, neutralization of a minor number of these components would not relieve the ache. Then what might have some effect? Nonetheless, peripheral application of anti-histamine cream might help to prevent further inflammations.

Schmidt Pain Index was developed by the entomologist Dr. Justin Schmidt to rank the pain of the various insect stings/ bites as part of his study. Since the pain and duration of a sting is subjective, these grades consequently may not hold accurate for everyone. Yet it’s still an interesting topic to gaze at. But one thing is apparent from this index, that is, better be never get stung by a bullet ant!

Fatal doses of Insect venoms

Honey bee         2.8 mg/kg

Giant Hornet     4.6 mg/kg

Yellowjacket     3.5 mg/kg

Harvester ant    0.12 mg/kg


Read more: Aurora: The holy grail of skywatching

Check your knowledge

Insect venoms are biotoxins, generally a complex mixture of proteins, peptides, enzymes and minor molecular weight components. Insect venoms significantly vary in their constituent composition from species to species

The four major classes of toxin are namely necrotoxins and cytotoxins, neurotoxins, myotoxins and haemotoxins.

Phospholipase A, alarm pheromones, histamine, dopamine, noradrenaline, hyaluronidase and serotonin.


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