Expert Health Articles

Stinging Insects

Maria Slack, MD

ENT & Allergy Specialists of Northwest Ohio

With flowers coloring the landscape and pollen filling the air, we are surrounded by the beauty of the warmer season, and the insects join in the fervor as well. Among the insects that pose both benefits and hazards, bees, hornets and wasps often stand out in our minds. We often unexpectantly encounter or are followed by these unwelcome visitors. Sometimes even within the confines of our homes they pay a visit.

These creatures are foraging for food and resources to maintain their nests and existence but can sting even when unprovoked, resulting in local (around the sting site) or body-wide symptoms. Bees can only sting once, as they lose their barbed stinger in whatever tissue is contacted, while hornets, yellow jackets and wasps can sting multiple times.

These insects, although similar in line of defense, differ in where they prefer to have their nests. Bees live in hives often found in trees. They forage miles from the hive and return with their lot of pollen/nectar. Yellow jackets, on the other hand, form nests in the ground and can burrow deep, unnoticed…until you are mowing the grass or cutting back the weeds. Hornets, whether white or yellow, form paper nests in trees and bushes. Lastly, wasps form paper nests in eaves and overhangs of buildings or structures. If a nest is found, have a professional remove it from the area because these insects can sting in mass if provoked. 

Avoidance is key, but as mentioned unexpected encounters often occur. If a stinging insect is encountered, move slowly away. If you are going to be outside, keep food containers and cans closed or covered, avoid brightly colored clothing, and wear close toed shoes. If an insect stings and the stinger is in place, remove it quickly with your fingernail or a wallet card. Reactions to insect stings most often result in local redness, small swelling and itching. Nonetheless, in people who have severe or additional symptoms, emergency medical treatment may be required.

In individuals who are severely allergic, the reaction may become life threatening and an epinephrine auto injector should be carried. In those with severe symptoms, after the reaction has subsided the long-term options include having emergency medical treatment on hand (epinephrine auto injector) and/or receive allergy injections to help desensitize or become tolerant to the stinging insect if possible. Wearing a medical alert bracelet or necklace to help identify a person’s allergies is also a good idea.

Although we know them well by their mode of protection, stinging insects play an important role in helping produce/maintain the foods we eat including honey. Almonds, tomatoes, beans, peas, squash, apples, peppers, peaches, pears, okra, onion, strawberries and eggplant all rely on these pollinators to produce fruit.