Overview of Insect Bites and Stings

Identifying the Bug That Stung You

Insect bites and stings are often a temporarily painful annoyance, but they can sometimes become a serious medical emergency (for example, if someone goes into anaphylaxis, which is a severe allergic reaction).

This article discusses how to identify five of the most common insect bites and stings and what to do about them. You’ll also learn the warning signs of a severe reaction to one.

Which Insect Stung Me?

Verywell / Cindy Chung  

When an Insect Sting or Bite Is an Emergency

While the rest of this article can help you sort what insect is responsible for the bite or sting, that becomes a distant second in terms of importance if there are signs of a severe reaction.

Insect bites and stings can be life-threatening in people who are allergic. However, you may not learn that you’re allergic to an insect until you are stung for the first time.

If you get an insect bite or sting and develop signs and symptoms of anaphylaxis, it’s an emergency and you need immediate medical attention.

Call 911 or go to the ER if you get an insect bite or sting and start having:

Use Your EpiPen

If you know about your insect bite or sting allergy, make sure that you always carry an epinephrine auto-injector (EpiPen). If you get stung, call 911. Then, inject yourself with your EpiPen or have someone else do it.

Identifying Insect Bites and Stings

If you’re not having a severe reaction to an insect bite or sting, figuring out what got you can help you determine the best first aid steps to follow.

Honeybees, wasps, hornets, yellow jackets, and fire ants are common stinging insects. If you happened to see the bug before it got you, it might be easy to figure out what it was.

If you didn’t see the insect, take a look at your surroundings. You might see a hive nearby or be able to tell if the insect was in the air or on the ground.

Honeybee Stings

Bee sting on face causing redness and swelling near eye.

DermNet / CC BY-NC-ND

Honeybees usually are not aggressive. However, some species are more likely to sting than others. Bees typically will only sting if their hive is threatened or when they’re stepped on.

Bee stings can lead to pain, swelling, and hives. Honeybee stingers are barbed on the end. After the stinger enters the skin and injects venom, it stays behind.

Removing the stinger is the first thing you need to do after you get stung. You can use a dull edge to scrape the stinger, or grasp it and pull it out.

Whatever method you choose, the most important thing is to get the stinger out fast. The longer it stays in the skin, the more venom it releases into the body.

Here are key points to remember if you’re stung by a bee:

  1. Act quickly to remove the stinger so less venom enters your skin.
  2. Use your fingernail or a credit card edge to scrape out the stinger.
  3. Wash the area with mild soap and water.
  4. Apply ice to the skin.

Wasp Stings

Swollen hand due to wasp sting.

DermNet / CC BY-NC-ND

Another common stinging insect is a wasp. Wasps come in different colors, such as black, white, and/or yellow. Their bodies are smooth, not fuzzy, and their legs dangle when they fly.

Wasps tend to nest in trees or in the ground. They’re rarely aggressive but will sting if they’re disturbed. Since they don’t leave their stinger behind, a wasp can sting multiple times.

If you get stung by a wasp it might feel warm or hot to the touch, itch, and look slightly swollen.

To treat the sting, wash it thoroughly, apply ice, and take a pain reliever if needed.

Fire Ant Bites and Stings

Insect stings aren’t always from bugs that fly around. You can also be stung or bitten by insects that are on the ground.

Fire ants can be found throughout the southern parts of the United States. They are red in and nest in the ground. The nests tend to have a mound of dirt on top that can be as tall as 18 inches.

Fire ants are most likely to bite and sting if a person steps on their nest. They can sting multiple times and will attack if their colony is threatened.

Stings from fire ants inject venom into the body that can cause pain, a burning feeling, and itchiness.

Welts may form soon after being stung by fire ants which can turn into pustules. It’s important not to scratch them open because they can get infected.

To treat fire ant stings:

Yellowjacket Stings

Yellow jackets, a kind of wasp, cause the most sting-related allergic reactions in the United States. Along with honeybees, yellow jackets are also responsible for most of the insect stings children get.

As their name suggests, yellow jackets are black and yellow. They nest in the ground and are scavengers. You might see them around garbage cans and they can be unwelcome guests at picnics.

Yellow jackets can sting multiple times in a row. If you’re stung by a yellow jacket you may have redness, swelling, hives, pain, and a burning feeling.

To treat a yellow jacket sting, wash the area with soap and water, and then apply ice.

Hornet Stings

Hornets, another kind of wasp, can vary in color and may have a white or yellow face. They tend to nest in trees and on the ground. Hornets can be aggressive and can sting multiple times in a row if they feel threatened.

Stings from a hornet can cause swelling, pain, and itchiness. The area that was stung may also feel warm and look red.

To treat a hornet sting, wash the area with soap and water. Then, apply ice and elevate the area if the sting was on the arm or leg.


Insect bites and stings are a common occurrence in kids and adults. For most people, it’s a minor pain that will get better with a little home treatment. However, for people who are allergic, a sting or bite from an insect can be a life-threatening medical emergency.

There are a few ways to figure out which insect stung or bit you, even if you didn’t happen to see it. Check for a stinger in your skin, look for a hive nearby, and try to recall whether an insect was flying near the ground or higher up. If you see the insect that stung you, look for identifying features such as its body shape and coloring.

In general, mild reactions to insect bites and stings can be treated by removing the stinger, washing the area with soap and water, and applying ice.

If you know you’re allergic to insects or are having symptoms of a severe reaction like trouble breathing, call 911 or go to the nearest ER, and use an EpiPen if you have one.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Which insects bite at night?

    Bed bugs and mosquitos can bite at night. Though not classified as insects (they are arachnids), know that spiders do, too.

  • What do bed bug bites look like?

    Bed bug bites are usually small. On white skin, they look red but may look almost purple on darker skin.

  • What does a spider bite look like?

    How a spider bite looks depends on the type of spider that bit you, but you’ll often see two little holes in your skin from their fangs. The bite can also look red and might turn into a blister.

12 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus. Anaphylaxis.

  2. University of Georgia Extension. Stinging and biting pests.

  3. Herness J, Snyder MJ, Newman RS. Arthropod bites and stings. Am Fam Physician. 2022;106(2):137-147.

  4. Lee JA, Singletary E, Charlton N. Methods of honey bee stinger removal: a systematic review of the literatureCureus. 2020;12(5):e8078. doi:10.7759/cureus.8078

  5. North Carolina Cooperative Extension. Red imported fire ant.

  6. American Osteopathic College of Dermatology. Fire ant bites.

  7. Cedars Sinai. Insect stings in children.

  8. American Academy of Pediatrics. Bee or yellow jacket sting.

  9. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Insect stings.

  10. University of Kentucky. Mystery Bites: Insect and Non-Insect Causes.

  11. American Academy of Dermatology. Bed bugs: diagnosis and treatment.

  12. Seattle Children's. Spider Bite.

By Daniel More, MD
Daniel More, MD, is a board-certified allergist and clinical immunologist. He is an assistant clinical professor at the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine and currently practices at Central Coast Allergy and Asthma in Salinas, California.