Oh! That Stings!

Spring is “bustin’ out all over.” In the musical Oklahoma it was happening in June, but here in East Texas it’s March and April. Little white islands of dogwoods and black cherries are livening up the woods. Azaleas are giving colorful performances all over town. Wildflowers of all varieties are perfuming the air and attracting bees and wasps.


Honeybees eat pollen and plant nectar. The nectar is carried back to the hive in their stomach where other workers add enzymes to it and create honey. Although nectar is very dilute, honey, after evaporation and chemical processing by the bees, contains only about 18% water. If you like honey, and most of us do, you are eating a sticky mix that has passed through bee stomachs. Like sausage, you really don’t want to know how it’s made, just that it tastes good.

Both ordinary honeybees, and killer bees – a dangerous Africanized variety of the common Italian honeybee - carry a single-use, barbed stinger in their tail that is left behind in your skin as they fly off after an attack, tearing out parts of their abdomen and causing themselves fatal injury.

Although honey and killer bees have about the same toxicity, the latter have very short fuses and an extremely low tolerance to intruders, often mounting mass attacks up to150 yards from their nest; about three times the distance that honeybees attack. Killer bee victims are often stung hundreds of times during an assault, and some have died.

Paper Wasps

Often called red wasps, paper wasps eat nectar from flowers and the “blood,” called hemolymph, from caterpillars they capture. The hemolymph and nectar is fed to larval wasps in the nest, and the larvae regurgitate a concentrated sugary liquid that the adults eat.

Their open-faced nests are often located under the eaves of buildings. Commonly, the ones we see in East Texas are reddish, orange, rusty, or black. Their nests are often as large as a man’s hand and may have 20-30 inch-long adults defending it, although they are generally not aggressive unless their nest is disturbed.

Wasps come in a huge variety, and their stingers are slick, non-barbed stilettos that are firmly attached to their owners. Unlike bees, their attack is not a single-shot suicide attack. Each one can sting numerous times.


Yellow jackets are about three quarters of an inch long and live in underground nests, housing several hundred to a few thousand adults. Often very aggressive, their attacks frequently focus on the victim’s head and face.

Most of the season, yellowjackets eat insects and may visit your barbeque, cutting out little pieces of raw hamburger or steak to take home to feed their young. Toward the end of summer, their civilization starts falling apart and they crave fruit, soft drinks, beer, and other sugary food. Yellowjackets have occasionally been swallowed when they crawled into a beverage can. That kills the yellowjacket when it hits your digestive juices, but the little varmint can sting all the way down, swelling your throat closed and producing a major medical emergency.

Bees and wasps are interesting, and an important part of the outdoor environment. As they blunder around in flowers looking for food, they play a major role distributing pollen essential to the life cycles of plants. But many, or perhaps most people are so afraid of them that even the buzzing of their wings brings on unreasoning fear. And they can sting. So, in my next column, I’ll tell you how to minimize your chances of a pointed encounter with them, and how to treat their stings.

Dr. Risk is a professor emeritus in the College of Forestry and Agriculture at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. Content © Paul H. Risk, Ph.D. All rights reserved, except where otherwise noted. Click paulrisk2@gmail.com to send questions, comments, or request permission for use.