Advise Me

Should I Be Scared of Bees & Wasps?

Summertime means a few things – your kids are home from school, you spend more time in a swimsuit than in jeans and popsicles are disappearing from your freezer. Unfortunately, it also means that bees and wasps are buzzing around in larger numbers.

While your kids are running and playing at the park, no amount of SPF50 sunscreen can protect them from an anxious bee, wasp or yellow jacket. Luckily, most  insect stings are relatively uneventful. Once the initial pain of the sting has worn off, most often they will be left with minor swelling and soreness where the sting occurred. After some tears, the pain should die down within an hour or so. To better understand the more serious risks of bee and wasp stings, we spoke with Bryan Kuhn, PharmD, a poison education specialist at Banner Poison and Drug Information Center.

Was that a wasp or a bee?

“There isn’t much distinction between bee and wasp stings,” said Dr. Kuhn, “although there is one telltale sign. Bees will leave a barbed stinger behind. Wasps, on the other hand, have a smooth stinger they can use more than once.” Dr. Kuhn added that you’re more likely to have a severe reaction from a bee sting because bees have a more complex venom.

If a stinger is left behind, the best way to remove it is by scraping a credit card carefully over the skin at the site of the sting. Plucking it with tweezers may be tempting, but the pressure could squeeze leftover venom out of the stinger.

How to treat a garden variety sting

If you are stung once and have normal symptoms of pain and swelling, most symptoms can be treated at home with the following remedies:

  • Wash with soap and water and apply a cold compress to reduce swelling (not an icepack)
  • Alternatively, some people clean the sting by mixing baking soda with water to apply as a paste - in this instance, wash off after application
  • Benadryl and other antihistamines can reduce reaction (but could make you sleepy)
  • Keep clean and dry for 36 to 48 hours
  • OTC pain medications (like Tylenol) can reduce pain

Am I or is my kid allergic?

Fear of a sting allergy is a common concern for people who’ve never been stung. Dr. Kuhn assured us that even adults and kids that are allergic won’t have an extreme reaction the first time. Instead, you will have a moderately severe reaction that could include hives, itchiness, a rash, swelling in the lips, eyes and tongue, etc. Subsequent stings could result in escalating symptoms but rest assured, the first sting will almost always act as a warning.

When are wasp or bee stings serious?

Stings become serious if you have had severe reactions before and/or in cases of many stings. Dr. Kuhn warned, “Africanized honey bees are quickly overtaking other bee types in areas of the southwest. They are more aggressive and are more likely to gather in swarms. Even if you aren’t allergic, adults that are stung more than a dozen times and children with multiple stings may need to get to a hospital. If you start to see signs of an anaphylactic reaction (an allergic reaction), don’t hesitate to call an ambulance.” These symptoms include:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Severe inflammation
  • Vomiting
  • Light-headed or passing out
  • Low blood pressure
  • Elevated heart rate
  • Confusion or anxiety

The do’s and don’ts

Dr. Kuhn offered quick guidance for anyone that encounters a swarm of bees.

  • Be aware of your surroundings.
  • Avoid areas with signage warning of aggressive bees.
  • Move away from areas with bee swarms, hives or loud buzzing.
  • If getting stung by multiple bees, run away as fast as possible. Keep in mind, bees can potentially fly faster than you can run and will pursue a perceived threat. So, pull a shirt over your head to protect it and your neck from bee stings. This can potentially save you from life-threatening swelling around your airway. Don’t stop until you’ve reached a shelter.
  • Call 911 if you’ve been stung more than 25-50 times, are having difficulty breathing, feel lightheaded or are having an allergic reaction.
  • Panic. Seek the nearest shelter and run there as fast as possible while covering your head and neck.
  • Disturb the beehive.
  • Jump into water if being chased by stinging bees (they’ll wait for you to come up and continue their attack).
  • Try to fight, swat at the bees or flail your arms.

Warm weather comes with its fair share of perils. But with a few extra precautions, you can be prepared for anything the season may throw at you. You can learn more about outdoor safety in these helpful articles written with help from Banner Health experts.

Safety Poison Prevention Children's Health Allergy and Immunology