Texas plants and animals pique my sense of the bizarre. It seems anything here that moves has venomous fangs or several ways to sting you. If it has roots, it’s covered with wicked thorns, stinging hairs, or causes you to break out in a maddening rash. Like I said, this is Texas, and it ain’t for softies.
Let’s just pick one example – wasps. Perhaps the first question is why do they have stingers and venom at all? The simplest answer to the question is that wasps sting to stun or kill and eat the larvae of various insects that might otherwise be munching on your flowers and vegetables. Some adult wasps stun or kill their prey larvae with their sting and then take the “fresh meat” back to the nest to feed their young-uns.
Stingers also serve as a defensive weapon for their owners. If swarming, buzzing, and diving at an animal doesn’t discourage an intruder, the sting comes into play. Wasps have a permanently mounted sting in their tail. It stabs the needle-sharp stinger in and injects a tiny amount of venom from a muscular storage sac in their abdomen. Wasps, unlike honey bees, can sting more than once.
Some people describe a wasp sting as fiery, stabbing, burning, aching, excruciating, or all of the above. How much it hurts is an individual thing. The wasp venom, depending on the species, can contain as many as 13 active chemicals designed to cause pain, swelling, or worse.
Justin Schmidt and his research colleagues actually developed a sting pain index by allowing themselves to be stung by 78 different critters. Is that scientific commitment, or did the experimenters simply need to be committed? Their scale runs from 0 to 4. Zero is no pain, and 4 is maximum and intolerable. They rated fire ants at 1.2, yellowjackets and honey bees at 2.0, and “red wasps” (paper wasps) at 3.0. A tarantula hawk (luckily rather docile) rates a screaming 4, the highest level on the Schmidt Index. The latter are those big black-bodied, orange-winged critters that do, in fact, hunt tarantulas and other spiders to haul back home for the kids. Want to volunteer to verify the pain rating scale? I didn’t think so.
Some of the chemicals in the venom slow blood circulation, causing the stinging chemicals to remain in place for an extended time, rather than be diluted and carried away more quickly. That’s why stings often hurt for an extended period of time.
Venom also causes our body cells to produce histamines and related substances that result in tissue swelling. See why you take antihistamines as a treatment? One poor victim I know was stung in the middle of his forehead by a “red wasp” and his entire face swelled up like a balloon.
Sometimes a very dangerous systemic allergic reaction to a sting, called anaphylaxis, occurs in sensitive people. Anaphylaxis can kill in less than 30 minutes. Each year in the United States about 100 people die from stings due to this reaction.
A victim going into anaphylaxis may feel light-headed, anxious, nauseated, or have an irregular or very rapid heartbeat, and difficulty breathing. Loss of consciousness may quickly follow. Swelling of the larynx and throat can develop rapidly, and death often occurs due to airway blockage. Children and elderly people are at greater risk. (I’m not sure what “elderly” means anymore.) People who have had a previous allergic reaction from stings are, of course, likely to have more serious problems.
Applying an antihistamine such as Benadryl™ or hydrocortisone cream and/or taking Benadryl™ in capsule form will often reduce symptoms.
Sawyer manufactures a plastic Extractor™ that can be used to draw out venom. My experience has shown it to be very effective. Extractors™ are available at outdoor outfitters or Wal-Mart.
For most people wasp stings are painful but not life-threatening. But remember, if a sting causes extreme swelling, wheezing or difficulty breathing, blurred vision, dizziness, heart palpitations or tingling of nose and lips, seek medical attention immediately. People with known extreme sting sensitivity should see their physician about carrying a prescription Epipen™ that can inject an immediate life-saving dose of epinephrine right through clothing.
To reduce your attraction to stinging insects, use repellent containing DEET and don’t panic and wave your arms when approached by flying critters. Incidentally, perfume and aftershave make you more attractive to bees and wasps, so unless you crave a close encounter of the worst kind, don’t wear fragrances when you go outdoors.
Hopefully, you will have a pleasant and stingless summer in the fields and forest. Keep a sharp watch and listen for that tell-tale buzzing of an irritated wasp.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org to send questions, comments, or request permission for use.