What Insect Stung Me?

Subtle clues may indicate the culprit behind your instinct sting.

Honey bee in flight approaching blossoming cherry tree
ViktorCap /istockphoto

It can be a frightening and stressful experience to be stung by an insect, especially if you develop a serious allergic reaction

That being said, it is common for most people to not be able to correctly identify which insect stung them. In fact, even if they see the insect, a person is likely to not be able to tell the difference between a wasp and a yellow jacket. This is why most allergists perform skin testing to an entire panel of stinging insects when an insect sting occurs and causes a serious allergic reaction.

Still, there are some clues to be able to determine the type of insect involved:


Honeybees (or simply “bees”) are typically non-aggressive and only sting when their hive is threatened, or if they are stepped on. The majority of stings occur in children running around outdoors while barefoot, particularly on grass or clover. 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.

All honeybees tend to leave a stinger behind after they sting. This occurs because the stinger is barbed, resulting in the stinger (along with the bee’s internal organs) remaining in the victim’s skin.


Bumblebees are even less aggressive than honeybees, and rarely sting unless provoked. They tend to fly extremely slow and are noisy. Usually, ​a person encountering a bumblebee has plenty of time to retreat before this insect is able to sting.


Wasps tend to live under the eaves of houses in nests that appear like honey-comb. When wasps fly, their back legs tend to dangle in flight. Wasps tend to be non-aggressive, although will sting when disturbed. They do not leave a stinger in their victims, so they are able to sting multiple times.


Yellow-jackets are the most aggressive of the stinging insects. They live in nests built into the ground or in structures on the ground. Yellow-jackets are scavengers and are commonly found around trashcans, dumpsters and at picnics. They often sting their victims as a result of a person drinking an open can of soda or other sugary drink that the insect has crawled inside of. Since they are scavengers, their stings commonly result in a skin infection.


Yellow-faced and white-faced hornets live in trees and shrubs in “paper-mache” nests. They will attack their victims when provoked, especially when disturbed with vibration, such as from a lawn-mower.

Fire Ants

Fire ants are found mainly in the South and Southeast parts of the United States. Some areas of the Southwest also have them. They have nests made of dirt that can be flat in sandy areas or as tall as 18 inches in moist areas and are most likely to sting if their nests are stepped on. Fire ants can sting multiple times and very rapidly, as the can remove their own stinger and sting again and again.


American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. (2016). Fire Ant Allergy

American College of Asthma, Allergy, & Immunology. (2014).  Insect Sting Allergy: Overview. 

Golden DBK. Insect Allergy. In: Adkinson NF, Yunginger JW, Busse WW, et al, eds. Middleton’s Allergy Principles and Practice. 6th edition. Philadelphia: Mosby Publishing; 2003:1475-1486.

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