What Insect Stung Me? - Finding the Culprit

How Can You Know What Insect Just Stung You?

Honey bee in flight approaching blossoming cherry tree
How can you tell what insect just stung you?. 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.

Stinging Insects - Which One Stung You?

Even without allergy testing, however, there are some clues that may help you determine the type of insect involved. Let's take a look at the most common sources of stings and how they differ, but first, what do you need to know even before you identify the source of your sting?

Bee Stings in General - First Watch for Signs of Anaphylaxis

Nobody likes to be stung by a bee. It can be painful, and most people have some degree of redness or swelling at the site of the sting.

For others—those who are allergic to bees—time is of the essence. If you find that you are feeling short of breath or that your mouth or tongue feel swollen, skip identifying the bee and dial 911 (or whatever the number for emergency assistance in your location.) If you know that you are allergic to bees, use your EpiPen as well. It's thought that between 0.4 and 4.0 percent of the population has an allergy to insect stings.

Signs of a the most serious type of allergic reaction, anaphylaxis include:

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

Check out these steps on how to manage a bee sting, now matter what type of insect has stung you.

Types of Stinging Insects

Even if you didn't get a good look at the insect which stung you, you may be able to identify the probable cause 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. The more common types of stinging insects (Hymenoptera) include:

  • Apids - honeybees and bumblebees
  • Vespids - wasps, hornets, and yellow jackets
  • Ants - fire ants

Honeybees

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. The one advantage of being stung, is that a bee which leaves a stinger behind can only sting once.

There has been debate about the best way to remove a honeybee's stinger, although research suggests that the "best method" is whatever is fastest.

It used to be thought that it was best to remove the stinger by scraping the stinger from the skin to prevent more venom from accessing the body. Now we know that the most important factor in the amount of venom injected is the amount of time the stinger remains in the skin. Ice packs can be applied to the skin after the stinger is removed to slow down the spread of the venom.

Bumblebees

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

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. Wasps tend to be more variable in color, with shades of brown, yellow, and red.

Yellow-jackets

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 where the insect has crawled. Since they are scavengers, their stings commonly result in a skin infection.

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

Hornets

Yellow-faced and white-faced hornets live in trees and shrubs in “paper-mache” appearing 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. They have nests made of dirt that can be flat in sandy areas or as tall as 18 inches in moist areas. They are are most likely to sting if a person steps on their nest. Fire ants can sting multiple times and very rapidly, as they can remove their own stinger and sting again and again.

Dealing with a Sting

Stings from any of these stinging insects can be painful, and cause the area around the sting to turn red and swell. Those who have an allergy can suffer further problems related to the allergic reaction. If you notice extensive swelling, thickening of your tongue, and especially wheezing or a feeling like your throat is closing off, seek immediate medical attention (dial 911.)

Sources:

Kasper, Dennis L.., Anthony S. Fauci, and Stephen L. Hauser. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine. New York: Mc Graw Hill education, 2015. Print.

Lee, H., Halverson, S., and R. Mackey. Insect Allergy. Primary Care. 43(3):417-31.

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