Insect Bites and Stings

Identifying the Bug That Stung You

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.

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.

Which Insect Stung Me
Verywell/ Cindy Chung  

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

If left untreated, anaphylaxis could lead to unconsciousness, coma, asphyxiation, respiratory or cardiac failure, and death.

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 (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 as to what is the best way to remove a honeybee stinger. Whatever method you choose, it is best to act quickly. The longer a stinger remains in the skin, the more venom will be released into the body.

Bee sting on face

DermNet / CC BY-NC-ND

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 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.

Wasp sting on hand

DermNet / CC BY-NC-ND

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.

Sterile "pseudopustules" can form where fire ants have stung and should be left intact. Opening up these pseudopustules can increase risk of infection.


Yellowjackets, a type of wasp, 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.

Unlike honeybees, most yellowjackets don't leave behind a stinger. Even so, it is important to look for and remove a stinger, clean the skin thoroughly, and apply a first aid cream like Bacitracin or Neosporin.

If you notice increasing redness, swelling, drainage, or develop a fever after a few days, call your physician.


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).

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5 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. U.S. National Library of Medicine. MedlinePlus. Anaphylaxis. Reviewed September 21, 2016.

  2. Merck Manual Consumer Version. Three Steps to Take Immediately After a Bee Sting—Commentary. May 23, 2018.

  3. Nemours. KidsHealth. Hey! A Bee Stung Me!

  4. Merck Manual Professional Version. Insect Stings. Revised July 2018.

  5. American Academy of Pediatrics. Bee or Yellow Jacket Sting.

Additional Reading
  • Kasper, D, Fauci, AS, and Hauser, SL. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine. New York: Mc Graw-Hill Education, 2015. 
  • Lee H, Halverson, S, and Mackey, R. Insect Allergy. Primary Care. Sept 2016;43(3):417-31. doi: 10.1016/j.pop.2016.04.010.
  • MedlinePlus. Insect Bites and Stings. Oct 16, 2017.