Stinging Insect Safety

Many insects can cause us all manner of pain, ranging from annoying nuisance, to painful bites, stings, and irritations. Obviously, some insects have a worse or more potent effect on us than others. Some of the most potent effects insects can have on us, which can subsequently elicit a huge overreaction from our bodies, come from their stings.

Most stinging insects belong to the group Hymenoptera. This order of insects includes ants, bees, and wasps. While not all hymenopterans have the ability, many of them can impart an uncomfortable sting. Stinging is typically used as a last resort by hymenopterans, typically in defense of themselves or their colony. This is because stinging an animal like a human is more dangerous for the insect than it is for us, as it exposes them to being crushed by whatever animal they are stinging.

Although the structure of the stinger and the venom may vary across the species, all stingers are modification of the same structure, the ovipositor. The ovipositor is used by queens and reproductive (such as the queen of a bee hive or ant colony) to lay eggs. Typically in these colonies, all the workers are sterile females, meaning they cannot reproduce or lay eggs. Instead, their ovipositor, or egg laying structure, is instead modified into a pointed barb with a venom sac attached. These are used to pierce or puncture the skin, and inject them with venom, otherwise known as a sting.

The venom used by stinging insects varies, wasps in general use a protein-based venom, while many ants use nitrogen-based alkaloids. Typically the actual ovipositors, or stingers on insects are very small. The pain or discomfort from a sting is caused by the venom and how it affects the body or, more importantly, how the body reacts to it. Usually insect stings are not that harmful to us, albeit sometimes very painful. An average person can survive 22 bee stings for every 2 pounds of body weight; roughly 1000 stings. Children, being smaller can survive around 500 stings. The treatment for a typical sting is to move away from the colony or hive, apply a cool compress to reduce swelling, and if needed an antihistamine to reduce itchiness. The sting should normally dissipate within a day or two. In the case of a bee sting, never use your fingers to remove the barb left behind by the bee, as it still has the venom sac attached. Removing it by hand can squeeze this sac, causing the remainder of the venom to enter the body. Instead, take a credit card or knife along the skin to remove it.

All stings involve some reaction from our bodies to neutralize the venom, but many individuals are hypersensitive, or allergic to bee or other insect venom. Their bodies undergo an overreaction to the venom, which can be very dangerous or even fatal if left untreated. The best treatment for severe allergic reaction is an epinephrine injection (EpiPen). This injection will relax the swelling which can occur in the throat, allowing the victim to breath and give time for medical help to arrive.

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