Stinging insects can really take the fun out gardening. Knowing what to watch for can reduce your chances of getting stung.
Some insects will bite you, while others have a chemical arsenal at their disposal that they can inject through a stinger which may or may not be barbed. While bug bites may suck, today we are talking about those insects with stingers. Those insects are bees, wasps, and one type of ant.
A stinger is a pointed organ, often attached to a venom gland. The venom causes pain and paralysis of specific organs within the victim. Normally found at the tail end of an insect, stingers are used as weapons against real and perceived threats. Most stingers are relatively smooth and can be used repeatedly. Honey bees and a handful of other species have barbed stingers that are torn from the insect’s body, causing it to die with minutes. These barbed stingers, once embedded in flesh, continue to saw their way deeper, injecting even more venom. This is why it is so important to remove the stinger as soon as possible after being stung. [Barbed stingers are able to sting other insects repeatedly without harming the attacker.]
Buzzing bees are usually a welcome sound in the garden. As highly efficient pollinators, they are the reason many of our crops produce food for us. There are over 20,000 species of bees around the world, but the honey bee is the most well known. If a honey bee stings you, it is because she feels that she, or her hive, are threatened. Moving deliberately and calmly around bees is often all it takes to avoid getting stung. There are four major types of bees found in North America: bumble bees, carpenter bees, honey bees, and sweat bees:
Bumble bees Bumble bees (or bumblebees) are important pollinators. Fat, furry, and hard working, it is best to leave these garden helpers alone. Their stings are about as painful as a honey bee sting, but they only sting when provoked. California varieties include the American bumble bee, western bumble bee, golden northern bumble bee, tricolored bumble bee, and the yellow-faced bumble bee. Small colonies often build nests under patios and attic soffits.
Carpenter bees Solitary carpenter bees build circular holes and tunnels in wood. While they may damage your fence, they are powerful pollinators. Male carpenter bees look like golden teddy bears and they cannot sting you. Female carpenter bees are a metallic black and rather noisy. Generally, they will not sting if you leave them alone.
Wasps are aggressive. They will come after you, and sting multiple times. While wasps do not pollinate flowers, they are garden predators. Wasps will also parasitize many garden pests by laying their eggs on or in other insects. Unlike most bees, which are covered with tiny hairs, wasps are smooth-bodied and are usually marked bands of black and yellow. Wasps have remained relatively unchanged over the past 34 million years. There are over 75,000 species of wasps around the world. Many different types of wasps found in California including blue-winged, braconids, common thread-waisted, black and yellow mud dauber, cuckoo, four-toothed mason, ichneumon, short-tailed ichneumon, and giant ichneumon, great black, great golden digger, horntail, leucospid, multillid, potter, spider wasps, and weevil wasps. Not all of these species attack humans. Hornets and yellow jackets are both types of wasps that do attack.
Hornets (Provespa and Vespa genera) There are 22 species of Vespa and 3 species of Provespa. Provespa are unique in that they are nocturnal. Hornets are aggressive social insects. They feed on sugary plants and fruit, as well as other insects, including honey bees. Hornet stings are more dangerous to humans that other insect stings because they contain higher concentrations of acetylcholine. Hornet stingers are not barbed and can be reused many times. Also, when one hornet stings you, it releases chemicals that tell other hornets to sting you, as well. These same chemicals are also released when you kill a hornet, so be forewarned. Hornets build ‘paper’ nests in trees and under the eaves of houses. Bald-faced hornets and European hornets are commonly found in California.
Yellow jackets Most yellow jackets are black and yellow, though some are black and white. Yellow jackets have a distinct side-to-side flying pattern and all female yellow jackets have barbed stingers that can reused several times. They do not carry pollen on their legs. Yellow jackets prey on pest insects., and they feed on nectar, fruit, and tree sap. Yellow jackets build paper nests in trees, burrows, and under house eaves. Only the inseminated queen lives through the winter. All the other members of a yellow jacket colony die the year they are born. Yellow jackets are responsible for the greatest number of allergic reactions among stinging insects. They are often found around trash cans and picnics.
There are many different ant species found in California, but only the red imported fire ant (RIFA) has a stinger. While other ants can inflict a painful bite, fire ant stings burn furiously for quite a while. There is no mistaking that sensation! Red imported fire ants (RIFA) came to North America in 1985, from South America. By 1998, they had spread throughout the southeastern states, from their point of entry in Alabama. By 2007, fire ants had found their way to the west coast and everywhere in between. Fire ants eat meat, grain, sugar, and grease. They are a highly organized social species that will work together to kill young livestock and wildlife. They can really dampen a picnic, too. Be on the look-out for mounds in the soil.
If you are allergic to wasps, you will also be allergic to hornets. If you are allergic to stinging insects, you should always carry antihistamines or an EpiPen with you. Signs of an allergic reaction include shortness of breath, swelling of the face, lips, or throat, severe itching, weak or racing pulse, nausea, wheezing or gasping. If any of these symptoms occur, get medical help immediately. Call 911, grab a family member, or a neighbor right away. These symptoms can quickly escalate into a life-threatening situation. Otherwise, follow these steps to ease your temporary pain.
If you get stung
If you are unlucky enough to get stung, inspect the area to see if a stinger is visible. If it is, scrape it out with your fingernail. Then, clean the area with soap and water, take an antihistamine, and apply an ice pack. You can also take aspirin or acetaminophen to ease the pain, just be cautious about mixing medications, as that can cause yet another medical problem. Generally speaking, you are going to feel really miserable for 30 to 45 minutes, moderately uncomfortable for the rest of the afternoon, and you may experience discomfort for a week or so. You may also want to apply hydrocortisone or calamine lotion to the area. Pastes made of baking soda or colloidal oatmeal can also sooth the area. If you haven’t had a tetanus shot in the past 10 years, it can be a good idea, as well.
To avoid gettin stung, take the time to look before reaching into an area, and wear protective clothing when outside.
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