There are two colors that can sometimes be frightening to see flying around you in the summer, yellow and black. Wasps and bees go hand in hand with beautiful Minnesota summers, but when they sting, it isn’t usually so pleasant. 

Paul Bigliardi, MD, is a dermatologist and allergologist with University of Minnesota Physicians (M Physicians) and a professor at the University of Minnesota Medical School. A physician with full training in both allergology and dermatology, Dr. Bigliardi is an ideal expert to discuss what to do if you’re on the receiving end of a sting. 

“Stings can really hurt,” Dr. Bigliardi says, “But they aren’t always so severe unless you’re allergic to them.”

Wasp stings vs. bee stings

“There are many differences between being stung by a wasp and being stung by a bee,” Dr. Bigliardi explains. 

For example, Dr. Bigliardi says that because of the difference in proteins and potential allergens that make up wasp and bee venom, people with allergies are generally only allergic to one type, rarely both. 

He also says, “If you are allergic to venom in a specific kind of wasp, like a paper wasp, it’s also likely that you may also be allergic to venom from other kinds of wasps as well, like hornets or yellow jackets.” The same applies for different types of bees.

How wasps and bees sting are different, too. Wasp stingers are pointed, and they can sting many times, Dr. Bigliardi says.

Most species of bees, however, have stingers with a little hook at the end that keeps it attached to what they sting. The top of the stinger contains a gland of venom and is connected to the bee’s abdomen, so when a bee stings, its stomach is ripped out when it tries to fly off, which means a bee will die shortly after.

“It’s important to know that if you are stung by a bee, don’t try to pull the stinger out with two fingers,” Dr. Bigliardi explains, “Since that will press on the venom gland and force more of it into your body.”

What happens– and what to do– if you get stung

When a wasp or bee stings, the venom causes the body to react in different ways. The mildest is a local reaction with swelling, pain and/or itching at the sting area, which can be extensive and last a few days. This kind of reaction is not usually linked to the classical allergic reactions, which can be classified into four different stages, ranging from mild to severe:

  • Stage one: Swelling at the site of the sting and hives not linked to the sting area. This reaction is not usually severe, and it does not normally indicate a severe allergy.
  • Stage two: Swelling at the site of the sting in addition to swelling of the eyes or lips, which is not linked to the sting. There are no breathing problems, and it is still considered a moderate allergic reaction. Treatment with antihistamines is usually sufficient.
  • Stage three: Symptoms from stages one and two plus trouble breathing. This type of reaction usually indicates a severe allergic reaction that needs immediate treatment.
  • Stage four: Symptoms from stages one through three, in addition to a drop in blood pressure, potential fainting and nausea with vomiting. Stage four reactions are the most severe and usually indicate a severe allergy. These reactions require immediate medical attention.

Local reactions can usually be treated with oral or topical antihistamines. If prolonged swelling and redness occur, using over-the-counter steroid creams like hydrocortisone may help. Stage one and two reactions can also be treated with antihistamines (e.g., Zyrtec©, Claritine©, Benadryl©). Dr. Bigiliardi notes patients should always talk with their doctor about the best way for them to treat a sting before taking any medications.

For those with stage three or four symptoms, Dr. Bigilardi recommends they immediately seek treatment in the emergency room after being stung and to immediately use an adrenaline injector (EpiPen© or Auvi-Q©). Additionally, and if available, they could also take an antihistamine as advised by a doctor.

Dr. Bigliardi also recommends his patients with known wasp or bee venom allergies carry a small, pocket-size case of antihistamines and oral corticosteroids as well as their adrenaline injection pen at all times.

A few additional tips: 

“If stung by a bee, remove the stinger, but be careful not to remove it from the top. If you add any pressure to the top of the stinger, it will inject more venom into the body,” Dr. Bigliardi cautions. Instead, try to shear the stinger off the side or use tweezers to remove it.

“If you are stung, stay calm and do not run around. If you run, then your heart rate increases and speeds up the flow of venom throughout your body,” he says. 

“Call immediately for help, and don’t stay alone,” Dr. Bigliardi adds.

How to know if you’re allergic and avoid being stung

Dr. Bigliardi notes that those who have reacted to a wasp or bee sting with hives, breathing problems, vomiting, fainting or cardiovascular symptoms likely have an allergy to the venom. “To identify the type of venom, either bee or wasp, the patient reacted to, we will use blood and skin tests.” he explains, “But if someone has just a local reaction, we don’t normally recommend they get tested.”

To prevent a wasp or bee sting, “As silly as it sounds, wearing bright colors can attract wasps or bees, since those are the colors of plants and flowers that attract them,” Dr. Bigliardi says. “Also avoid walking barefoot in the yard or garden in case you step on a nest in the ground or a bee on a flower.”

One last note, too. “Don’t be scared of bees,” Dr. Bigilardi emphasizes. “They are so beneficial for the planet, and they are usually very docile and calm. Just don’t swat at them, since they can take that as a threat.”