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Stinging insects have a sting (or stinger) at the posterior end of their abdomen. This group of insects includes honey bees, bumble bees, wasps, hornets, yellow jackets, and ants. However, many ants do not have stings. A couple of species that do have stings are army ants, found in the southern U.S., and harvester ants, found in the southern U.S. and western Canada.
The sting (formally called an aculeus), which is connected to a venom sac, is a modified egg-laying tube (ovipositor). So if you are stung, it was a female insect that did it. In North America, yellow jacket wasps are involved in about 70% of the stings to humans. They are often mistaken for bees because of their yellow and black bodies. Most stinging insects can sting you more than once. One exception is the honey bee (worker bee) which has a barbed sting. When the worker bee escapes after stinging a person, the sting and attached venom sac are ripped out of the bee and stay in the victim's skin; the bee will die afterwards.
Depending on the species, insects feed on almost any source of energy such as plants, wood, meat, blood, and other insects. For example, Vespa mandarinia, commonly known as the Asian giant hornet or sparrow wasp, will seek both plants and other insects such as beetles, caterpillars, and spiders a source of food. (Note: this hornet was referred to as “murder hornet” in a newspaper article in 2020 because this insect will attack other insect colonies such as yellow jackets, paper wasps, and honey bees as a source of protein).
Nesting spots are often near these food sources. While each species may have a preferred type of nesting spot, in general, nesting places can be anywhere and include:
Note that some insects can chew through ceilings and walls to get into other rooms, while others can bore into wood or dirt to make tunnels or enlarge the hole for their nest.
To prevent these stinging insects from moving into buildings or other structures, keep holes and entry spaces caulked and screen any ventilation openings.
It is important to be prepared for any possible effects from an insect sting, whether it happens at work or at home. Generally, most stings will only result in a temporary injury - pain, swelling, and skin redness around the sting. However, sometimes the effects can be more severe - even life-threatening, depending on where you are stung and what allergies you have.
If you are stung in the throat area of your neck, it may cause edema (swelling caused by fluid build-up in the tissues) around the throat and may make it difficult to breathe.
Remember, if you are startled or stung by a bee or wasp while you are driving, working with power tools or machinery, or are on a ladder, be aware of your surroundings - pull over, climb down the ladder, or stop working until you have assessed the situation and determine if it is safe to continue.
While it is common to want to know what type of insect stung you, it is often hard to know for certain. Some insects do have a more toxic venom than others (such as the southern yellow jacket), while others are larger so they are able to carry more (but technically less toxic) venom (such as the Asian giant hornet).
Regardless, most people experience local effects like pain, swelling, itching, and redness around the sting site. Painful stings in the mouth and throat can result if you unintentionally swallowed a wasp or bee (e.g., drinking a soft drink from a can that a wasp had entered).
Some people will experience swelling in a larger area, not just immediately around the sting site. They may develop hives but no systemic effects (effects in the body away from sting site like effects on breathing and blood flow). This is a mild allergic reaction and can last a few days. The area will be sore and uncomfortable but one should not give in to the temptation to scratch the stung area. Scratching may cause a break in the skin which could lead to an infection.
In rare cases, a severe allergic reaction can occur. This situation is serious and can cause "anaphylaxis" or anaphylactic shock. Symptoms of anaphylaxis can appear immediately (within minutes) or up to 30 minutes later. Symptoms to watch for include:
Although most deaths result from severe allergic reactions, some are caused by direct toxicity of the insect venom. Of those who die from a severe allergic reaction to a sting, half die within 30 minutes, and three-quarters within 45 minutes.
This reaction can occur the first time you are stung or with subsequent stings. Watch for signs of this reaction.
If you have experienced a severe allergic reaction to an insect sting in the past, you will likely experience a similar or worse reaction if stung again. Doctors will prescribe a bee sting kit (self-injectable syringe containing epinephrine) to allergic people so they can carry the medication with them at all times. For people who are hypersensitive to stings, wearing a medical alert bracelet will enable first aiders to respond promptly and appropriately to a sting victim who is unconscious.
People who have been stung multiple times (such as when fleeing from a swarm or nest) can sometimes suffer serious health effects. While rare, death may occur. If you have been stung many, many times at once, stung severely, or are experiencing health effects talk to your doctor. You may need to have your health monitored over the next few days or week.
Employers should be notified if a worker, especially one who works outdoors, has allergies to insect stings. Co-workers should be trained in emergency first aid, be aware of the signs of a severe reaction, and know how to use the bee sting kit (self-injectable epinephrine).
The best way to prevent stings is to avoid the insects. Leave the area, if possible. If there is a travelling swarm, they will likely leave within a few days.
Note that insect repellent ("bug spray") does not affect these stinging insects. Avoidance and awareness are the keys to not being stung.
Before working at a site:
If you find you are working near stinging insects, here are some tips.
What not to do:
Management of outdoor food sources is very important. Some insects, such as the yellow jacket look for different types of food at different times of the year. In the spring, they require more protein for the new larvae and may be more attracted to other insects but also to meats and pet food. By late summer, they are more interested in high sugar foods such as fruit, candy, and pop (soft drinks).
Wasps and hornets do not leave their sting in you, and so they can sting repeatedly. Honey bees can sting only once and will leave the sting (and venom sac plus some other parts) stuck in the skin at the sting site.
The sting, if present, should be removed right away since the venom can still be injected for up to a minute after the bee detaches from its sting.
Try removing the sting by scraping sideways with your fingernail, a credit card or other stiff card. Try not to squeeze the bee venom sac as that action will release more venom. However, you might have to use tweezers if the venom sac breaks off leaving the sting in the skin.
All stings hurt. A normal (or "localized") reaction to the venom from a sting is redness of the skin, swelling, severe itching (pruritis), and a burning or stabbing pain. The longer the sting is in the skin, the more will be the effect of the venom being injected. An application of ice (wrapped in a towel to prevent freezing the skin), anti-itch cream and/or an antihistamine pill can help reduce the effects of the sting.
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Although every effort is made to ensure the accuracy, currency and completeness of the information, CCOHS does not guarantee, warrant, represent or undertake that the information provided is correct, accurate or current. CCOHS is not liable for any loss, claim, or demand arising directly or indirectly from any use or reliance upon the information.