Insect Bites and Stings

Identifying the Bug That Stung You

Yellow jacket on person's finger
Silke Dietze / Getty Images

Being stung or bitten by an insect can be stressful and even scary. Besides managing the sting it's important to recognize if any symptoms you experience indicate you're having a serious allergic reaction called anaphylaxis. And even though most allergists perform skin testing to an entire panel of stinging insects when a bite or sting causes an allergic reaction it can be helpful to know what type of bug got to you.

Signs of Anaphylaxis

If you're seriously allergic to an insect such as a bee you may not know it until you get stung the first time. Call 911 or the number for emergency assistance in your location if you begin to feel these symptoms of anaphylaxis: 

  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing
  • Skin symptoms beyond the site of the sting such as redness, itching, and hives
  • Swelling or thick feeling in your mouth, throat, or tongue
  • Feeling lightheaded or dizzy
  • A sense of impending doom

Types of Stinging Insects

Stinging insects belong to the order Hymenoptera. The three most common stinging insects are apids (honeybees and bumblebees), vespids (wasps, hornets, and yellow jackets), and ants (fire ants are the stinging kind).

Note that if you didn't get a good look at the insect that stung you, you may be able to identify it by the appearance of the hive, whether the insect was near the ground or higher in the air, and even by the way that the insect flies. Here's more information about each type of stinging insect:

Honeybees

Honeybees (or simply “bees”) typically aren't aggressive. The only sting if their hive is threatened or if they're stepped on. Children running around barefoot, especially on grass or clover, where honeybees like to linger, receive the majority of honeybee stings. Africanized honeybees (“killer bees”) are far more aggressive and tend to attack in swarms without provocation. This type of honeybee is becoming more common in the southwestern United States.

Honeybees' stingers are barbed on the end, so after they enter the skin they stay behind, along with their internal organs.

There is some debate about the best way to remove a honeybee's stinger. In general, though, the best method is the fastest method: The longer a bee's stinger stays in the skin the more venom is released into the body.

One quick way to get a stinger out is to use the edge of a credit card to scrape it out. Don't use tweezers: This can squeeze more venom into the skin. After the stinger is out, apply an ice pack to the skin: This will help slow the spread of venom. 

Bumblebees can sting, but they aren't aggressive. Unlike honeybees, they don't have a barbed stinger so they can sting multiple times. 

Wasps

Wasps are varied in color (shades of brown, yellow, and red); when they fly their back legs dangle. They often live under the eaves of houses in honeycomb-shaped nests. They're rarely aggressive but they will sting if they're disturbed. Since they don't leave their stinger behind, wasps can sting someone multiple times.

Yellow Jackets

Yellowjackets are the most aggressive of the stinging insects. They live in nests built into the ground or in structures on the ground.

Yellowjackets are scavengers and are commonly found around trashcans, dumpsters, and at picnics. They often crawl into open cans of soda or other sugary drinks and then sting when a person takes a swig. Since they're scavengers, their stings sometimes can cause a skin infection.

If you're stung by a yellow jacket, you don't have to worry about removing a stinger, but it's important to clean the area thoroughly and apply some type of first aid creams, such as Bacitracin or Neosporin. If you notice increasing redness, swelling, drainage, or develop a fever, call your physician.

Hornets

Yellow-faced and white-faced hornets live in trees and shrubs. The material they make their nests from resembles papier-mâché. Hornets will attack when provoked—if disturbed by the vibration from a lawnmower, for example.

Fire Ants

Fire ants are found mainly in the South and Southeast parts of the United States. They make their nests from dirt. These nests can be flat in sandy areas or as tall as 18 inches in moist areas. Fire ants are most likely to sting if a person steps on their nest. and can sting multiple times, very quickly.

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Article Sources
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  • MedlinePlus. Insect Bites and Stings. Oct 16, 2017. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/000033.htm