Hey, everyone, do you know what time of year it is? That’s right—stinging-insect season! Wait, what? Late/end of summer has been christened with that title because it’s typically when colonies can contain upward of 4,000 members. Oh joy. With more than 500,000 people ending up in the ER each year from stinging insects, and more than 2 million allergic to insect stings (both numbers are for the U.S.), we wanted to get the scoop from Jim Fredericks, an entomologist and director of technical services at the National Pest Management Association (NPMA). Most stinging species spend this time prepping their queen and scavenging for food for the winter months ahead, which is why they become more aggressive.
• Don’t have a clue what a stinging insect is? For this column, we’re going to focus on the paper wasp, Africanized bee (it’s rude to call it “killer bee”), bumblebee, European hornet, and Baldfaced hornet.
• Jim Fredericks from NPMA gave us some tips on how to spot them: Paper wasps get their name from the papery upside-down-umbrella–shaped nests they build, often on ceiling beams in attics, garages, and sheds. Africanized bees tend to nest in oddball locations, like tires and empty cars, and often attack in large colonies if the nest is threatened. Bumblebees usually nest outdoors in vacant mouse burrows.
• European hornets are interesting because they fly at night and are attracted to light. Watch for them to generally nest high up in hollow trees or to build a large nest in the attic. Baldfaced hornets also make a papery nest, which can be football-sized or larger and be found hanging from trees, inside shrubs, or under eaves on the side of structures. By the way, some species of wasps are commonly referred to as yellowjackets.
• So, what can irk stinging insects? “Even the slightest movement, such as a swat,” Fredericks explained. “Africanized honeybees can be extremely aggressive, even if they are not provoked. Getting too close to Baldfaced hornet or yellowjacket nests can cause them to become aggressive, especially if you are causing vibration or noise.”
• Uh oh…one has you locked in its radar: Do not run or scream. “You can wave insects away and gently brush them off your clothes or skin. Do not swat at them, as this increases the likelihood of an aggressive reaction.”
• P.S. “It’s best to remain still, but if a stinging insect is coming after you, run in a zigzag pattern and seek shelter inside a car or house as soon as possible.” And what about those movies where swarms engulf people? A swarm is typically not aggressive and won’t chase you. “Swarm is a technical term that describes a behavior exhibited by honeybees. When a colony becomes too large, a new queen and a large number of workers will swarm to find a new place to nest. Often large masses of honeybees will be observed on the side of a building or a tree branch,” said Fredericks.
• But let’s say you aren’t poking a nest with a stick. What makes one of these insects want to be around you? Hint: Stop wearing that sweet-smelling perfume or cologne on the trail. Also, food and drink can attract them, so don’t leave sweet liquids (like soda) or even meat out in the open. Yellowjackets are kind of into garbage, so put yours in a sealed container.
• To recap: Don’t rub your body in cologne, Diet Pepsi, or bologna. Other ways to be protected: “Avoid dark colors, loose-fitting garments, or open-toe shoes,” said Fredericks. “Wear long pants and sleeves, and be sure to use an insect repellant containing DEET.”
• Yet, it happened: You’ve been stung and now there’s a painful red spot. Avoid scratching; a cold compress should help relieve the symptoms. One trick we’ve tried is to shake some meat tenderizer on a sting—it actually worked.
• If the stinger is still in there, you should be able to see it. But, “It is better to scrape the surface of your skin gently with something stiff like a credit card. Grasping it with tweezers may cause more venom to be squeezed into your body through the stinger,” he explained. The honeybee has a barbed stinger that will usually get stuck in you and the bee will die. Wasps and yellowjackets, however, can sting repeatedly without dying.
• If you begin to have difficulty breathing, extreme swelling or pain, muscle weakness, stiffness, or fever, get to a doctor or the ER immediately. It may be a sign that you’re allergic to insect stings. As many as 100 people die in the U.S. annually from a bee or wasp sting.