All Sorts of Stings: Bees, Wasps, and Fire Ants

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Buzzing, winged insects seem to elicit irrational fear in a large percentage of the population. That’s probably because most of us have had a bad experience with bees or wasps in our past. Their stings are extremely irritating and in most cases that’s the worst of it. But some people react more severely than others. Each year, roughly 50 to 100 people in the United States die from the results of a sting. Often, those deaths occur in less than an hour. The mortalities almost always result from anaphylaxis, a rapid and severe allergic reaction.

Wasps, bees, and fire ants are all part of a big order of insects referred to as Hymenoptera. The name refers to the insects’ membranous wings. Not all of them possess stingers, but many do. Their stings usually cause immediate burning pain, followed by redness, swelling, and finally itching. Application of an ice pack usually eases both the pain and swelling from a sting. Mild and moderate allergic reactions usually respond to oral antihistamines such as Benadryl. Severe difficulty breathing—typical of anaphylaxis—can only be treated with an injected drug such as epinephrine.

Bees

Honeybees lead amongst their kin in human fatalities, even though they are nonaggressive by nature. Bees that are out collecting pollen will only sting if stepped upon or roughly handled. Near their hive, however, honeybees are much more likely to attack a trespassing human or animal.

As many as 15 percent of all people may have some sensitivity to bee venom, but it’s usually mild. The honeybee is the only member of Hymenoptera with a barbed stinger. Once stinger meets skin, a complex mechanism embeds it deeper and deeper into the epidermis. The stinger tears from the bee’s abdomen and continues to pump venom for up to 20 minutes.

Research indicates that it doesn’t matter whether the stinger is scraped, pinched, or pulled from the skin. The only important factor is time. Quickly remove the stinger by any method, since the longer it remains embedded, the more venom it injects. Bee venom itself is not particularly toxic or dangerous, save for those who are allergic. Fifty or more simultaneous stings, however, can cause systemic reactions including headache, fever, vomiting, diarrhea, or convulsions.

The infamous “killer bee,” or Africanized honeybee, is a close relative of the honeybee. They have spent the last several years working their way into the Southwestern U.S. from Central and South America. Its venom is no more potent than the honeybee’s but it’s a much more aggressive insect. They get their reputation from swarming around their victims and stinging simultaneously.

Wasps

Wasps come in many varieties: paper wasps, mud daubers, yellowjackets, and hornets, to name a few. Wasps, unlike bees, are predators. They’re often considered beneficial insects, since they prey upon the dregs of bug society. Wasps are also scavengers; they are attracted to meat and decaying matter.

Wasp venom is more potent than bee venom, and since their stingers lack a barb, a single wasp can jab a victim multiple times. Ten or more stings can cause serious symptoms like vomiting, diarrhea, fever, muscle spasms, convulsions, and difficulty breathing. In some cases, large numbers of stings may result in cardiac arrest. However, despite the stronger venom wasps rarely cause human deaths.

Wasp stings are more likely to cause an infection, probably due to wasps’ poor personal hygiene. As a precaution, thoroughly clean the site of a sting.

Fire Ants

Next to bees, fire ants are probably the second most deadly member of the Hymenoptera gang. Their strength lies in numbers. Over 20,000 ants usually occupy a single hive, and they’re capable of rapid and efficient deployment. When an ant attacks, it grasps its victim with its mandibles, arches its back, and drives its abdominal stinger into the skin, delivering a payload of venom. The ant quickly pulls its stinger out, pivots, and jabs again. If it isn’t swept away, a fire ant will continue this process until it creates a ring of painful stings.

Fire ant venom causes an incredibly itchy, sometimes fluid-filled bump to form on the skin. The effects may last for more than a week. Oral antihistamines such as Benadryl or a topical anti-itch ointment like hydrocortisone may help alleviate the discomfort.

Fire ants arrived in the United States sometime between 1918 and 1930 via South American ships docked at a seaport in Mobile, Alabama. Since then, they have rapidly and aggressively spread throughout the southern and southwestern states. Fire ant infestations are difficult to track, and health statistics concerning the ants are difficult to come by. One study in 1990 reported 32 deaths related to fire ants. Infants and the elderly are most prone to stings, as are those with decreased mobility, such as inebriated persons who fall asleep near a mound.

Prevention

Lone bees or wasps, foraging away from their hives, are rarely a threat. Stay calm and move away slowly. They don’t appreciate rapid movements, so resist the temptation to swat. Avoid squashing bees or wasps near their hives. Doing so releases pheromones—airborne chemical messengers—that attract others and signal an attack.

If a swarm does attack you, run as fast as you can. Look for dense cover, but don’t stop running once you reach it. Healthy adults can often outrun a swarm of bees, but Africanized honeybees have been known to chase their victim for over a quarter of a mile before calling it quit. Don’t attempt to dive underwater; the bees will just wait until you resurface.

Unfortunately insect repellent will not discourage attacks. Brightly colored cloth seems to attract interest from winged insects, as do food and drinks left uncovered around camp.

Fire ants will attack any moving thing that gets in their way. Swatting and running are both effective ways of dealing with them.

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