For outside workers, stinging insects are a summertime job hazard. Stings are usually just an unpleasant annoyance, but occasionally they can cause serious illness and death.
Wasps, hornets, bees and certain kinds of ants can all deliver stings. Usually the result is no worse than a painful local swelling that clears up in a few days. However, receiving too many stings or a having a severe allergic reaction to a sting can be fatal.
Allergic reactions are not the only dangers. People startled by insect stings (or even the threat of them) have been injured or killed in falls, vehicle crashes and contact with moving machinery and powered tools, and workers on horseback have been thrown by alarmed horses.
Forewarned is Forearmed
Awareness is the best defense against stinging insects— awareness of their habits and habitats, and awareness of one’s own allergies.
Here are some things you need to learn
1: What you’re dealing with
Stinging insects have a stinger at the butt end of the abdomen. Most, except the honey bee, can sting more than once. The stinger punctures the skin and injects venom, causing pain and itching.
Identify the stinging insects likely to be found in your area. Stinging insects common through most of the United States and Canada include:
Most stinging insects can sting more than once.
Two other aggressive types of stinging insects can be found in the southern United States: fire ants and Africanized honey bees.
Fire ants look like ordinary ants but they are aggressive. A native fire ant lives in the southern states, but the one you really need to avoid is the aggressive, toxic Red Imported Fire Ant, introduced from South America. They will attack anything that disturbs their nest. They grab the skin with their jaws, pivot and inflict a circular pattern of stings. The sting site develops into a circle of blisters that can become infected. While fatalities are rare, one was a Virginia landscape worker who was killed by fire ant stings in 2006.
Africanized honey bees, popularly known as killer bees, are another relatively new arrival to North America. They developed in Brazil when aggressive African honey bees were mated with milder European honey bees. Some of the hybrids escaped and overwhelmed the populations of native honey bees. Africanized honey bees arrived in the United States about 20 years ago and are continuing to move northward.
2: Where you’ll find them
To avoid stings, start by avoiding the insects. Check out your surroundings before starting work. Watch for insects entering or exiting a hole in a building or the ground that could lead to a nest. Common locations for nests are under eaves, decks and stairwells, inside buildings near doors and windows, in trees and fallen logs, holes in the ground, lumber and piles of debris.
Food also attracts some stinging insects, such as yellowjackets, so keep food covered and toss out leftovers. Trash cans should be emptied and washed frequently. Keep drinks covered so you don’t take a sip that includes a wasp.
Fire ants are a hazard during floods, when entire colonies can float on the water until they land somewhere solid and set up a new home.
Africanized honey bees attack in swarms. If you’re working in an area where they may be present, you need to be alert to the sight and sound of a swarm. Run to a shelter, such as building or car, if you are attacked or threatened.
3: How to dress defensively
Dress to protect yourself. You can wear gloves, long sleeves and long pants. Tuck pants into boots and run tape around clothing at your ankles and wrists. Two layers of fabric provide better protection than one. Tie back long hair to keep insects from becoming entangled. If you must work near bees or wasps, use a hat with netting to cover your head, neck and shoulders.
Avoid bright colored, patterned and dark clothing, as these tend to attract insects more than plain light colors. Fragrances such as perfumes and soap scents also attract these insects. One thing that won’t do much to protect you is insect repellent.
4: What to do if you’re stung
Check to see if the stinger is still there. If so, quickly scrape it off. To relieve the burning sensation, itching and swelling, apply ice wrapped in a towel and an antiitch medication. An antihistamine pill might also help reduce itching and a mild case of hives. To prevent infection, wash the area and don’t scratch it.
If you are stung around the throat, get medical help fast because swelling could make it hard for you to breathe.
Watch for signs of severe allergic reaction in yourself and your companions. These include:
Hives, itching and swelling in areas other than the site of the sting
Swollen eyes and eyelids
Swelling of the tongue
Shock, which can lead to unconsciousness and cardiac arrest
Call for medical help immediately if you observe any of these symptoms. A person who has experienced a severe allergic reaction to a sting in the past needs to carry a sting kit, which is an auto-injectable syringe containing epinephrine, at all times. He or she should wear a medical alert bracelet, carry a cellphone and make sure the employer, co-workers and companions know how to use give an injection to stop the reaction.