Hardly anyone makes it through the summer without getting bitten by an insect at least once. But this isn’t because bees and wasps are especially aggressive animals that have nothing better to do than to attack people. Quite the opposite: most insects do their best to avoid people. But people and animals increasingly share the same habitat, which means that this avoidance strategy doesn’t always work.
Tracking down the culprit
A table laid out with food is a great temptation for wasps. They love sweets and meats. If you try to chase away the insects with hectic movements or by shouting at them, you often get the opposite result. The insects feel attacked and that’s when they sting. They inject venom through the sting into the presumed enemy in order to drive them away. Wasps usually hold back some of the venom so that they can sting again
Hornets are the biggest indigenous wasps in Germany. They are a protected species. Their size and loud buzzing are enough to strike fear in many people. But a hornet would rather flee than attack. Hornet stings are therefore extremely rare.
Bees are vegetarian and feed mainly on plant nectar. They have little interest in human food. But if you get too close to them in meadows, gardens or their nests, you might get stung. This defence strategy is usually deadly for the bees. The barbed sting gets stuck in soft human skin and is torn off when the bee attempts to withdraw it. This is why the bee must choose the sting site carefully. If a sting remains in the sting site, it was a bee. The sting should be carefully scraped out so that the venom sack hanging in the sting can’t do any further damage. It also helps to scrape it with the side of a plastic card, such as a credit card or ID card. On the other hand, it’s not a good idea to grab the sting with a pair of tweezers. Squeezing it will force the rest of the venom into the body.
Bumblebees also belong to the bee family and are equipped with a sting that is considerably smaller. It is more difficult for the bumblebee to use its sting than for other bee species. This is why bumblebees lie on their backs before attacking in order to threaten the enemy with their sting. They sting less often than wasps or other bees.
Harmless reaction or allergy
Most insect stings are painful. There is itching, redness and swelling at the sting site. These are the body’s completely natural defence reactions to insect venom. For most people, the worst of it is over in a few hours or days. But it can become dangerous if the insect is swallowed and stings inside the mouth or throat. If the mucous membranes around the sting site swell, breathing can become difficult. The best thing to do in this case is to remain calm and call the emergency number 112 (in the EU) to request immediate medical assistance.
If additional symptoms such as difficulty breathing, sweating, nausea or vomiting occur, it is probably due to an acute allergic reaction (anaphylaxis) to the venom. Immediate action must be taken. People with a known allergy to a specific venom should carry an emergency kit so that they can treat themselves right away. Because the symptoms can initially improve but then worsen again, the next step should be to take an ambulance to the nearest hospital.
When experiencing anaphylaxis for the first time, it should be investigated after the acute phase whether the insect sting was the real cause and from which insect the venom came. Two out of three anaphylaxis cases involving insect venom are caused by wasps, with bee stings accounting for only one in five cases (Worm 2014).
Nearly three million people in Germany are estimated to be allergic to insect venom of some kind (Schäfer 2009). Stings are rarely fatal, even in people with allergies. The German Federal Statistical Office only registered 18 deaths in 2016.
90 per cent of insect venom allergies can be eliminated with specific immunotherapy (SIT) (Kliemek 2018).
Prevention is the best protection
Here area few tips for a peaceful encounter with insects:
- Remain calm
- Avoid making hectic movements
- Cover up foods outdoors
- Do not drink straight from the bottle
- Don’t walk too close to wasp nests and beehives
- Stay out of their way
Federal Statistical Office of Germany. Ergebnisse der Todesursachenstatistik für Deutschland – Ausführliche vierstellige ICD10-Klassifikation – 2016. Tabellenblatt: Einzelnachweis A00-T98, ICD-Ziffer T634, Stand 18.12.2018 2016 [Statistics on the causes of Death in Germany]. Worksheet: itemisation A00-T98, ICD number T634, date: 18 December 2018
Przybilla B, Rueff F. Insektenstiche – Klinisches Bild und Management. Dtsch Arztebl Int. 2012;109(13);238-48.