Sometimes nature really bites. Stinging insects, in particular — bees, wasps, hornets — aren’t just party-poopers that send you running for cover when you’re enjoying some fresh air. Their sting sends thousands of people to the ER (or worse, the grave) each year.
It’s such a recurring problem, U.S. federal agencies recognize stinging insects as workplace hazards, responsible for fatalities in industries like farming, construction and landscaping. And, not to be overly dramatic, but insect behavior is evolving: This summer, yellow jacket “super nests” the size of cars are popping up, housing 15,000 worker wasps, reports The New York Times.
Fingers crossed you’ll never spot a super nest in your lifetime, but stinging insects remain a massive buzz-kill and health hazard, wherever you are. In this post, we’ll share how to prevent bee, wasp or hornet stings from turning your outdoor fun into a trip to the hospital.
What’s What? Identifying Stinging Insects
Before we get into sting prevention and treatments, it’s helpful to discern the insects buzzing nearby, and what to expect from them.
- Common types: Honey bees, carpenter bees, bumble bees, Africanized (a.k.a. killer) bees
- Physical traits: While bee types differ, they’re generally small and fuzzy, with yellow and black markings.
- Behavioral traits: Range from docile to aggressive. While crucial to the health of the environment, bees will attack a perceived threat without hesitation, and are particularly problematic around small children, or people allergic to bee stings.
- Nests: Aside from domesticated bees living in man-made hives, wild bees live in colonies or “honeycombs” in hollow trees or cavities in buildings.
- More: Detailed info on bee types and behaviors.
- Common types: European hornets, paper wasps, yellow jackets, bald-faced hornets
- Physical traits: Slim, fuzz-free body and clearly defined “neck.” Smooth stingers (compared to bees’ barbed stingers) that stay attached to the body after a sting.
- Behavioral traits: Most are aggressive and do not have to be provoked before attacking. Rather, wasps will actively defend their nest if humans get too close.
- Nests: Gray, paper-like nests look like a football, and may be high or underground.
- More: Detailed info on wasp types and behaviors.
- Common types: European, bald-faced.
- Physical traits: Giant-sized wasps measuring up to 2 inches, slim body, black and yellow stripes.
- Behavioral traits: Known for tapping on windows at night as they search for light. Found near fruit trees and feed on fallen fruits. Very protective of their hive.
- Nests: Gray or brown papery nests, usuallyfound in high places like tree tops, hollows, wall voids.
- More: Detailed info on hornets and their behaviors.
How to Prevent Bee, Wasp, and Hornet Stings
- Let a pro handle that nest – Found a nest on your property? “Keep yourself and other members of the family away and do not attempt to remove it on your own,” cautions the National Pest Management Association (NPMA). “Depending on the species, a nest could contain hundreds (if not thousands) of stinging insects, which could swarm and sting en masseif they are disturbed of feel threatened.” Instead, the NPMA advises you contact a licensed professional who can identify the species and either destroy or relocate the colony without putting you at risk.
- Don’t swing or swat – It’s natural to flail our arms and swat at insects when confronted with them, but that gesture can cause them to become more aggressive and even sting repeatedly. Remain calm and distance yourself quietly. You may also blow gently on the insect as you back away.
- Don’t crush that wasp – Crushing a wasp could incite nearby wasps into a frenzied attack, writes William Lyon in a fact sheet for the Ohio State University. “The wasp venom contains a chemical ‘alarm pheromone,’” he explains: When released into the air, that chemical signals guard wasps to race to the rescue and “sting whoever and whatever gets in their way.”
- Cover food and drinks – Stinging insects are attracted to sweets, so it’s not a great idea to leave drinks or food exposed, says the NPMA. Keep food and drink covered until you’re ready to consume it, and promptly store garbage in sealed receptacles.
- Dress for safety – Dark colors, floral prints, sweet-scented perfumes and lotions are all known to attract insects, so you should avoid them, say the experts at NPMA. Loose-fitting clothes and open-toe shoes also provide more opportunities for insects to sting you, particularly in grassy areas.
- Trim vegetation – Thick vegetation means more nesting places for wasps, bees and hornets, so you’ll want to keep it trim. It’s also a good idea to keep flowering plants at a minimum if you or a family member is allergic to bee stings, warns the NPMA.
- Stay safe in a moving car – What if a bee, wasp or hornet flies into your moving car? Remain calm, writes Lyon. “The insect wants out of the vehicle as much as you want it out. They usually fly against windows in the car and almost never sting the occupants. Slowly and safely pull over off the road, open the window and allow the bee or wasp to escape.”
- Pre-treat ahead of outdoor events – Next time you host an outdoor get-together — whether a business function or intimate gathering at home — have a reputable provider pre-treat the area so your guests can enjoy themselves, safely.
How to Treat a Bee, Wasp, or Hornet Sting
Sometimes you can’t escape a sting, despite your best efforts. Reactions range from normal to severe, which Ohio State University experts describe like this:
- Normal Reaction: “Lasts a few hours. Sting site is painful, reddened, may swell and itch, but will quickly dissipate.”
- Large Local Reaction: “Lasts for days. Sting site is more painful, swelling and itching may be present both at the sting site and surrounding areas.”
- Severe Allergic Reaction: Can progress quickly and the whole body is involved. Symptoms can include dizziness, nausea, weakness, stomach cramps, diarrhea, hives, itching around the eyes, vomiting, swelling, and more. “Reactions may occur in a few minutes with most deaths within 30 minutes,” although death could also happen in under five minutes.
First-aid care to help counter the sting includes:
- Wash the sting site with soap and water. (CDC)
- Remove the stinger by wiping gauze over the sting area, or scraping a fingernail over the area. Never pinch the stinger or use tweezers, which can force more venom into the wound. (CDC, OSU)
- Apply ice to reduce swelling. (CDC)
- Apply a paste made with baking soda and water. (AAD)
- Do not scratch the affected area, which could worsen swelling, itching, and the risk of infection. (CDC)
- If the sting is on an extremity (e.g. arm, leg), it’s helpful to elevate the limb. (NPMA)
- Over-the-counter, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can help reduce pain, while an antihistamine and hydrocortisone ointment can calm the local reaction. (NPMA)
Do seek emergency medical care if the affected person experiences allergic symptoms like “tongue and throat swelling, wheezing, dizziness, shortness of breath, or a drop in blood pressure,” cautions the NPMA.
The best prevention, of course, is having no bees, wasps or hornets around. If you spot or suspect nests are nearby, it’s important you keep away and engage a licensed pest professional, as mishandling nests can provoke a dangerous reaction. When that time comes, we’ll be honored to help with an expert screening.
Wishing you a pleasurable, sting-free summer and fall!