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Be prepared for stinging insects

Stinging insects are tiny but their venom packs quite a punch.

The Fredericksburg community has been buzzing about the dangers of such insects after Sarah Harkins, a pregnant mother of four, died following an allergic reaction to a sting at her home in Spotsylvania County.

Initial reports indicated she was stung by bees, but family friends and area beekeepers now speculate that she was actually stung by yellow jackets, a type of wasp. A study published this summer in the the Annals of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology found that most adults can’t tell the difference between honeybees, wasps and hornets.

About 3 percent of adults and 1 percent of children have life-threatening reactions to stinging insects, said Dr. Andrew Kim of the Allergy and Asthma Center of Fredericksburg.

And there’s not really a good way of predicting who is allergic to stings and who isn’t, he said.

Even a past reaction to a sting doesn’t guarantee a future one, said Dr.  Jonathan Mozena with Allergy Partners of Fredericksburg. A person who has reacted in the past has about a 65 percent chance of reacting in the future.

Since allergic reactions can be fatal, anyone who has reacted in the past should take precautions, Mozena said. They could carry epinephrine and stay stocked up on allergy medicines like Benadryl or Zyrtec.

For people with allergies to stings, shots are a good preventative measure, Mozena said. After getting shots, a patient’s odds of reacting to stings are less than 2 percent.

“Allergy shots are a brilliant treatment for stinging insect allergies,” he said. “But they’re underutilized.”

Many patients are unaware that shots can prevent allergic reactions to stings, Kim said.

“We can significantly reduce your risk of a severe allergic reaction,” he said.

Kim also recommended that people who’ve reacted in the past take steps to avoid stinging insects—not wearing perfume or colorful clothes, wearing shoes when outdoors and being especially careful at picnics.

If a person does get stung, they should watch for signs of an allergic reaction. Those symptoms include itching, hives, difficulty breathing and dizziness.

People who react should seek emergency medical care, then follow up with an allergist.

People can react to any of the stinging insects, which include bees, wasps, hornets, yellow jackets and fire ants. Most people have trouble telling the various types of stinging insects apart and often blame bees for all stings.

That’s a barb that honeybees don’t deserve, said Thurman Burnley, president of the Rappahannock Beekeepers Association.

Honeybees will sting, he said, but only when threatened. The honeybee dies shortly after using its stinger. So typically, a honeybee will first “head butt” a person as a warning, Burnley said.

“Bees just want to live, they just want to be part of their family and take care of their home,” he said.

Even yellow jackets, which tend to be more aggressive, mainly sting as protection, Burnley said. They often build their homes near to the ground, and the vibrations of lawn mowers make it seem as if those homes are under attack.

Many people get stung while mowing the lawn, so it could be a good idea to wear long sleeves and long pants, Kim said.


Here are tips for avoiding insect stings:

- Don’t look or smell like a flower—avoid bright colors and floral-scented colognes and perfumes

- Wear shoes when outdoors

- Wear long sleeves and long pants, especially when mowing the lawn or working in the yard

- Don’t drink soda or eat sugary foods outside

- Rinse your garbage cans and lids, and keep them closed

- If using an insecticide on a nest, do so at night when insect activity is calmest

- For hornets, it’s usually best to call a professional exterminator

- When using a lawn mower or power tools, be aware they could cause a swarm

- Often clean up fruit or berries that have fallen from trees or shrubs.

—Compiled from interviews and multiple websites


Here are some ways to identify common stinging insects:

- Yellow jackets’ nests are made of a papier-mâché material and are usually located underground, but can sometimes be found in the walls of frame buildings, cracks in masonry or woodpiles.

- Honeybees and bumblebees are nonaggressive and will only sting when provoked.  Domesticated honeybees live in man-made hives, while wild honeybees live in colonies or “honeycombs” in hollow trees or cavities of buildings.

- Paper wasps’ nests are usually made of a paper-like material that forms a circular comb of cells which opens downward. The nests are often located under eaves, behind shutters, or in shrubs or woodpiles.

- Hornets are usually larger than yellow jackets. Their nests are gray or brown, football-shaped and made of a paper material similar to that of yellow jackets’ nests. Hornets’ nests are usually found high above ground on branches of trees, in shrubbery, on gables or in tree hollows.

—American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology


If you do get stung, follow these steps:

- Remove the stinger within 30 seconds, by scraping a fingernail over the sting. Do not squeeze the sting; this will force more venom into your body.

- Raise the affected limb and apply a cold compress to reduce swelling and pain.

- Use topical steroid ointments or oral antihistamines to relieve itching.

- Watch for signs of an allergic reaction: hives, itching, shortness of breath, dizziness, stomach cramps, nausea or diarrhea.

- If you do have an allergic reaction and have epinephrine, use it then seek emergency treatment.

- If you have an allergic reaction and do not have epinephrine, seek emergency treatment immediately.

—American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology

Amy Umble:  540/735-1973  |