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Sting, Skin

Stinging Insect Allergies: Bees and Wasps

See also: Ants | Mosquitos

Bees/Wasps
For most people, bee and wasp stings are a pain – literally – but for people with venom allergies, getting stung can have serious, and even life-threatening, consequences. But from wearing the right colors to clearing out clutter, there are simple avoidance steps you can take to prevent the flying insects from setting up shop around your home, and to deal with the unwanted intruders if they have barged in.

For answers on bee and wasp safety, we turned to Stoy Hedges, senior technical professional and entomologist with Terminix, as well as the AAAAI‘s stinging allergy guidelines.

Bumblebee Yellow jacket Honey bee

Bug Basics
• There are dozens of varieties of stinging insects, from honeybees to yellow jackets to fire ants.

• The biggest nuisances for homeowners are paper wasps and yellow jackets because they set up shop in voids in the walls of houses or other protected cavities. Hornets tend to build nests on walls or in trees or shrubs.

• Bees have a gentler reputation but still pack a powerful punch – and yes, bumblebees do sting.

• Backyards are the perfect place for bees, wasps and other stinging insects because they can usually find water, food, shelter and flowers which attract them.

• Some stinging insects set up shop for the year; others remain year after year.

• Once you are exposed to the venom of a particular stinging insect, you can become sensitized to it, and some venoms can cause serious allergic reactions.

Stinging Insect Allergies: Reactions and Protection

Did you Know
• Many bees and wasps don’t create holes themselves; they just use cavities that they find.

• Social wasps such as yellow jackets, hornets and honeybees will make nests that house hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of workers – and some, such as the Africanized honeybee, can be triggered to sting en masse by loud vibrating noises such as leaf blowers and lawn mowers.

• It’s a myth that all bees can only sting once then die. This only applies to honeybees.

• Honeybees can set up for years at a time, and will sometimes split colonies, which can lead to swarms.

• Bumblebees and honeybees have different venom, and so each requires a specific extract for treatment.

• Yellow jackets, hornets, and wasps feed on human foods, and they’re especially attracted to sweet food. That’s why they tend to hang out near garbage cans, leftover food, or at outdoor events where food and soft drinks are served.

• Most stings only cause localized pain and swelling, but in a person who has a specific insect allergy, they can cause systemic reactions. Anaphylactic sting reactions account for approximately 40 deaths per year in the United States. (Read more on reactions here.)

• Potentially life-threatening insect stings occur in 0.4 to 0.8 percent of children and 3 percent of adults.

• Sometimes to access nests in walls, pest control pros will need to drill small holes, then spray pest killer; when it’s honeybees, they sometimes have to open entire walls to remove the honeycomb and dead bees. In extreme cases, a beekeeper may be called in to remove the honey and the hives.

Dos
• If you have ever had a significant reaction to a sting, speak to your doctor about whether you require an epinephrine auto-injector and a referral to an allergist. If the device is required, be sure to carry it at all times.

• If you are diagnosed allergic, ask your allergist about immunotherapy (often called “allergy shots”) for insect venom. This therapy is strongly recommended as it has been shown to be up to 90 percent effective.

• Around your home, keep trees and shrubs thinned out and cut back from the structure, and seal up exterior holes and cracks.

• Fill in any rodent holes or mole tunnels, or other void spaces such as hollow logs or gaps in stone faces in the yard so insects can’t build nests in them. Also watch out for wasps under sheds, in crawl spaces, in chimneys, etc.

• Always be aware of your surroundings when you’re outside, and take note if you see bees, wasps, or other stinging insects flying in and out of a particular spot in the garden or house.

• Be careful when opening your grill for the first time in spring, or opening the door on an outdoor electrical box, as there can be a nest, and that’s often when people get stung.

• If you’re allergic to stings, wear long pants and long sleeves whenever possible. Also make sure to tell friends and neighbors about your allergy, and show them how to use your epinephrine auto-injector in case you get stung, and get wear a medical identification bracelet.

• Ask anyone with allergies to stings to stay indoors when a nest is being removed.

• If you’re allergic and do get stung, get away from the insect quickly, as they can sting multiple times. Use your epinephrine and seek emergency medical attention.

Don'ts
• If you don’t want to attract bees and wasps in the yard, don’t wear very dark colors or very bright colors. Stinging insects see dark colors as shadows, which they’re drawn to. (That’s why the pest control experts wear white when removing nests.) Also avoid wearing perfumes and other scented products, as these insects are drawn to fragrance.

• If you’re allergic don’t wear pants or skirts with wide hems that stinging insects can fly under and get trapped. In case you might step on a stinger, avoid wearing open-toed shoes and sandals.

• If you discover an active nest, don’t try to kill the wasps or remove the nest yourself. It can be very dangerous, so it’s worth calling the pros.

• Don’t leave any food scraps, open soda cans or trash around. Also, regularly clean out trash bins. To wasps, these are like fine-dining restaurants.

• Avoid eating or drinking outdoors, and be cautious in situations where food and drinks are being served outside. Be especially careful when drinking from an opaque container such as a soda can.

• Don’t swat at a bee or wasp if it comes near you, as that can trigger a strong defense response. Social bees and wasps can send out a pheromone that brings its fellow workers in to help. It’s much better to gently brush an insect away. In the extremely rare event that many bees or wasps come for you, get as far away as possible as quickly as possible.

• Don’t bother with most of the folk cures: the fake paper wasp nests you can hang do little to deter wasps from building nests, and the hanging traps that use sugar to attract wasps may actually draw more stinging insects to your yard.

See also:
Stinging Insect Allergies: Ants
Stinging Insect Allergies: Mosquitos

Jennifer Van Evra is Allergic Living magazine’s Healthy Home columnist.

To give us feedback on this article, please email comments@allergicliving.com

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