A June 22 Health article about stinging insects misclassified a wasp and presented some insect lore as fact. The cicada killer wasp is a sphecid, not a vespid, and it rarely stings humans. Although the Food and Drug Administration and the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology warn people to avoid perfumes and bright-colored clothing to reduce sting risk, no study has tied these behaviors to risk. Wasp stingers have barbs, just as do bee stingers, but the wasp stinger barbs are smaller. (Published 6/28/04)
Know this the next time a yellow jacket, hornet or other member of the hymenoptera family buzzes in for a low-reconnaissance of your picnic: Even if the worst happens, odds are good (how does 6.6 million-1 sound?) the sting won't kill you. According to National Safety Council statistics, hot tap water is deadlier. Then again, getting stung could hurt like the dickens.
In most cases, bees and wasps don't attack unprovoked. Instead, they defend against threats -- swats with a newspaper, rocks thrown at their nests and lawn mowers disturbing their underground hideaways. Some just do it more aggressively than others.
Apids, a class including honeybees and bumblebees, are milquetoasts -- some of them for good reason. When honeybees take up arms, they leave behind their stinger, and part of their abdomen, and then fly off to die. Alas, there are no signs that, in the creature world, the meek shall inherit the earth: apids' numbers are in steady decline in the United States, and by summer's end they've yielded to the leaner, meaner, more numerous vespids, or wasps.
Vespids include hornets, paper wasps, cicada killer wasps and the widely reviled yellow jackets, with their distinctive black with yellow markings. Even though many people apply the term yellow jacket casually to any yellow-coated stinging insect, of which there are many, a yellow jacket properly refers to a particular kind of vespid. These are the guys that ruin picnics, can confuse you with a flower if you're wearing bright clothing or scents and pack a wallop with their stings. Their nests of 4,000 to 5,000 are mostly underground, though they can also be found in woodpiles and walls, wherever there's enough hollow space to build.
Bees are called social insects, meaning they live in colonies and labor jointly for the well-being of the hive, but that doesn't mean they have any social graces amongst us humans.
The best self-defense, says Keith Tignor, Virginia's state apiarist (or beekeeper), is to stay well away from any nests, keeping in mind that bee stings are a defense mechanism that "inflict pain to drive intruders away." Said Tignor, "You have to go out of your way to get stung by a bee [or wasp] away from its nest."
People respond to bee stings differently, says Robert Shessler, who chairs George Washington University's department of emergency medicine, with some finding them barely noticeable while others register intense pain. "Ten people stung with the same amount of venom will have 10 different reactions," he said.
In all cases, what you're really feeling is the overreaction of the body's immune system to foreign proteins (allergens) in the insect's venom. When the immune system encounters these allergens, it bombards them with histamines, potent chemicals that cause inflammation of surrounding tissues. Red welts (hives) may show up on the skin.
Once stung, you need to remove the stinger if it is still in your skin; otherwise, venom will continue to flow into the wound. Carefully pluck it out with tweezers or your fingernails, or scrape it out gently with a credit card or the back of a knife. Then, apply ice to the stung spot to ease the pain and swelling. Elevation and aspirin help, too. But, said Shessler, "there's no good treatment to change the natural course . . . as the body reacts aggressively" to the venom.
Infection can worsen the reaction. While it is unlikely that the stinger was contaminated by bacteria, the skin puncture may invite infection, particularly in extremities like the feet with little blood flowing through them. Shessler advises seeking medical attention if the area around the sting does not start to improve after 24 hours, or gets worse. In such cases, an antibiotic will likely be prescribed.
In very rare cases, bee and wasp stings can provoke an allergic reaction severe enough to lead to anaphylactic shock. The condition drastically reduces blood pressure and restricts breathing; if not treated immediately, it can kill in as little as 30 minutes. Difficulty breathing after a sting -- or dizziness, swelling in the throat or tongue, or hives over large parts of the body -- should be seen as a cue to get to the hospital right away. Those who know they are allergic should always carry an injectable dose of epinephrine -- a form of the naturally occurring hormone adrenaline, which quickly raises the heartbeat, ups blood pressure and opens up constricted airways to ease breathing.
However, Shessler stressed repeatedly, extreme reactions to stings are "very, very rare. [Stings] are generally benign."
-- Matt McMillen