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September 1997

Insect Stings: What’s Bugging You?

If the thought of a spider bite or bee sting makes your skin crawl, then preventing a painful encounter is the key.


Bees, yellow jackets, hornets, and fire ants (all of the order hymenoptera) have a nasty habit of injecting venom when they sting. Most humans find the pain extremely annoying, and that’s the end of the story. Some folks are severely allergic to venomous insects, however, and a sting can mean death. An estimated 50 to 100 people die every year in the United States from anaphylaxis, which is a severe allergic reaction brought on by an insect sting.

The nonaggressive honeybee leads the swarm of stinging insects that pose a threat to some. In fact, as many as 15 percent of us are allergic in varying degrees (often it’s mild) to bee venom. Unlike other hymenopterans, the bee has a barbed stinger that rips out of the insect and stays in your skin, continuing to pump venom for up to 20 minutes. That’s why if a bee nails you, remove the stinger as soon as possible by scraping it out; never try to squeeze or pull it out.

As for the infamous Africanized “killer” bees, close relatives of honeybees, they are edging into the extreme southern United States from Latin America, where they’ve attacked hundreds of people with fatal results. Killer bee venom is no more potent than honeybee venom, but the “killers” are more aggressive and engage in mass attacks. Human deaths from killer bee swarms have been reported in recent years in southern Texas and Arizona.

Wasps (including hornets and yellow jackets) are predators and scavengers who, unlike bees, are attracted to meat and decaying matter. Their dirty stingers can cause an infection in human skin if the sting site isn’t thoroughly cleaned. One wasp is capable of multiple stings, but deaths in humans rarely result.

When it comes to earth-bound insects, none is more vicious en masse than the fire ant. Step on one of their beds, which typically contains about 25,000 residents, and 30 seconds later you’ll be covered with hundreds of ants. Just about all species of ants bite, but fire ants do it with a vengeance. While holding on to your flesh with their mandibles, fire ants arch their backs and jab in their stingers. After venom is released, they pull out the stinger, rotate, then jab it in again. Unless you intervene, each ant will create a ring of burning stings. The venom causes tissue destruction and produces a fluid-filled bump that itches horribly for a week or more. Fire ants are commonly found in at least 11 southern states, and mounds have been discovered as far north as Virginia. The number of victims seeking medical attention in recent years has soared to as high as 85,000 in one recent year, and deaths from stings have topped out at 30 per year.

With any of these hymenopterans, 10 or more stings can cause vomiting, diarrhea, headache, fever, muscle spasms, difficulty breathing, and convulsions. More than 100 stings can result in cardiac arrest. Ice packs generally ease the pain and swelling in the sting area, as do over-the-counter products such as StingEze. Mild to moderate allergic reactions characterized by hives, facial swelling, or dizziness can be treated with an oral antihistamine. If the person experiences difficulty breathing, signaling the onset of anaphylactic shock, an injectable drug called epinephrine (available by prescription in pre-loaded syringes) is essential. If you’ve ever had an allergic reaction to an insect sting, consult your physician about the possibility of taking an epinephrine kit or other medication with you on trips.

When confronted by bees or wasps, stay calm and back away slowly. These insects don’t like rapid motion, especially swatting movements. If attacked by a swarm, run for dense cover, lie face down and cover your head with your hands. Running and swatting are both approved methods for warding off fire ants. When it comes to sting prevention, keep in mind that bright-colored clothing seems to attract winged insects, while tan, light brown, white, and light green colors appear to have no special appeal. Food left uncovered around camp is an open invitation to stinging things. And bug repellents do work.

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