Beware the Wild Wasps

Yellow jackets are sometimes mistaken for bees, but they are true wasps, with the ability to sting a perceived enemy multiple times. Photo: USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab

Stings, especially from the annoying yellow jacket wasp vying for your lunch, are not only painful but can be dangerous as well.

Entomologist Justin Orvel Schmidt, creator of the infamous Schmidt Sting Pain Index, describes the sting of the yellow jacket wasp as: “Bad.” He adds that it is an “instantaneous, hot, burning, and complex pain that gets one’s attention no matter what thoughts were preoccupying the mind.”

Schmidt voluntarily experienced the stings of 78 species and 41 genera of Hymenoptera to develop his four-point scale. He rates the yellow jacket as a 2—comparable to the honeybee’s sting, and far less intense than the sting of the tarantula hawk, another native wasp that rates a 4, and inflicts a pain so intense Schmidt’s advice is simply “lie down and scream.”

For most yellow jacket sting victims, the pain lasts for a few minutes. In Schmidt’s words, “Leaving us with a hot, red, enduring flare to remind us of the event in case our memory should fade.”

For individuals sensitive to yellow jacket venom, the sting is just the beginning of the misery this small member of the wasp family inflicts.

Yellow jackets are by far the most aggressive stinging insect in the Santa Monica Mountains and the most common. This species often builds colonies underground in abandoned animal burrows, including gopher tunnels, or sometimes in the walls of buildings. Colonies can be huge, with multiple queens and thousands of workers.

Most stings occur when humans get too close to the entrance of a colony. An angry yellow jacket can sting over and over again, sending a chemical signal to other wasps from its nest to come help drive away the perceived enemy.

For most victims of a yellow jacket sting, a painful or itchy welt forms where the venom is injected, but the pain from the sting generally only lasts a few minutes. It is not uncommon to experience nausea, or dizziness, especially if the victim has been stung multiple times. 

The most serious type of allergic reaction, anaphylactic shock, can occur shortly after a yellow jacket sting and requires immediate emergency medical treatment. Signs of an anaphylactic response include hives, difficulty breathing, shortness of breath, and weakness. 

It is important to remember that an Epipen or other epinephrine auto-injector kit is a rescue medication but additional emergency medical treatment is required as quickly as possible.

Rose Ann Gould Soloway, a consultant for Poisoncontrol.org, cautions that a severe allergic reaction to an insect sting can be serious. “This is a true medical emergency,” she writes. “Call 911 right away.”

Individuals with a sensitivity to the venom may experience a non-life-threatening response to a sting officially known as a “large local reaction.” This type of allergic

response results in localized swelling and extended pain that can last for hours or even days. Localized swelling doesn’t sound too bad, but it can mean an entire hand, arm, or leg swells impressively, causing pain and extreme discomfort. 

Treatment includes ice, antihistamines, and anti-inflammatory medications, ranging from over-the-counter medicines like Ibuprofen, to prescription steroids like cortisone. Large local reactions are painful and unpleasant but are rarely life-threatening. It is also possible to develop a serious delayed reaction to a wasp sting called serum sickness, which can occur as much as one to two weeks after a sting. 

Serum sickness is regarded as relatively rare. Symptoms include fever, muscle pain and weakness, soft tissue swelling, flushed skin, nausea, diarrhea, cramps, hives, itching, and, in severe cases, throat swelling and difficulty swallowing. Treatments include steroids and antihistamines and can require hospitalization. 

The official medical advice on avoiding serum sickness is to “stay away from the cause.” That isn’t always possible with yellow jackets. They are everywhere during the summer and autumn months and are often actively aggressive. The abundant rains this winter have produced optimal conditions for wasps this summer, with plenty of food and resources, making it even harder to avoid encounters.

It’s a good idea to use care while mowing, digging, weeding, or watering in the garden if yellow jackets are around. Huge numbers of angry yellow jackets can emerge from a nest in the ground that has been disturbed. 

Keeping food and drink covered when eating outside and making sure open beverage containers haven’t attracted an unseen wasp, can help reduce unpleasant encounters. Traps can be used as a non-toxic control for yellow jackets in the garden.

While it’s no fun to be stung, yellow jackets are an important pollinators and prey on a wide range of insects humans regard as pests. Coexistence whenever possible as opposed to chemical warfare is the best approach.

People with a known allergy to wasp venom should make sure they have an up-to-date rescue injector. Wasp venom allergy tests and immunotherapy are an option for an individual with wasp venom sensitivity for whom avoidance is not an option. Wasp stings are painful and unpleasant, but the potential for a life-threatening allergic reaction is low, occurring in less than one percent of children and three percent of adults, according to data collected by the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. 

“We do not simply fear,stinging insects,” writes Schmidt. “We entertain ourselves with our fear of them. We relish and embellish the fearfulness of stinging insects to make an even better story.”

 

RESOURCES

 

Suzanne Guldimann
Suzanne Guldimann

Suzanne Guldimann is an author, artist, and musician who lives in Malibu and loves the Santa Monica Mountains. She has worked as a journalist reporting on local news and issues for more than a decade, and is the author of nine books of music for the harp. Suzanne's newest book, "Life in Malibu", explores local history and nature. She can be reached at suzanne@messengermountainnews.com

1 Comment
  1. I live in Newburyport Massachusetts, a hospital 1/10th of a mile , Anna Jaques, I walked in with what was counted as over a hundred stings, having a severe allergies since 2 years old, and three in the family had it, Anna Jaques claimed they never heard of anyone dying of bee stings, I was so close to choking to death, finally a nurse came in and asked staff what was going on, I would love to sit and talk with you about bees,wasps,hornets, things I have learned, what I try to do, how to eliminate, what to look for,
    This is the greatest reading I have come across.
    Jim Raymond, jrhandy1@gmail.com

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