Insect Bites and Stings- Part 2

In part 1 of our series we covered millipede, centipede, and spider bites and their effects. In part 2 of the series we will cover scorpions, biting ants, and flying insects that can inflict pain and sometimes deadly bites or stings.


scorpion scorpion_3scorpion_2

In the United States, scorpions are most abundant in the semiarid regions of the Southwest. Scorpions don’t bite (no teeth), but they do sting. We have many types of scorpions in the US primarily in the semiarid regions of the Southwest. If you stay calm, it is not difficult to treat a scorpion sting. Scorpion stings are not likely to be fatal or even to have long-lasting effects. It is important to recognize scorpion sting symptoms:

  • Immediate pain or burning
  • Very little swelling
  • Sensitivity to touch
  • Numb and/or tingling sensation
Scorpion sting approximately 20 minutes after initial sting.

Scorpion sting about 20 minutes after initial sting.

I have had many people tell me that they didn’t even know they were stung by a scorpion when it happened. Some people are especially sensitive to the sting and have scary stories to tell (more than a few are somewhat exaggerated). If you are stung by any scorpion, including the venomous varieties, here are some immediate actions you should take:

  1. Wash the area with soap and water.
  2. Apply a cool compress on the area of the scorpion sting.
  3. Ice (wrapped in a washcloth or other suitable covering) may be applied to the sting location for ten minutes.
  4. Remove compress for ten minutes and repeat as necessary.
  5. If stung on a limb (arm or leg) elevate the limb above heart level.

If severe symptoms are present, which may include:

  • Blurry vision
  • Muscle twitching
  • Roving eye movements
  • Other non-typical symptoms

You may need an anti-venom to avoid death or other long-term complications.

 Scorpion Sting Tips
  • Be careful when camping or during other outdoor activities to make sure that a scorpion has not made a home in your clothes, shoes or sleeping bags.
  • Make sure you are wearing gloves when lifting branches or logs for a fire or shelter. If you don’t have gloves flip the logs or branches with your foot or pole before lifting them with your hands.
  • Scorpions glow brightly under UV light (black light).
  • Few people die from scorpion stings, even the sting of the bark scorpion.
  • Scorpion stings are most dangerous to the very young and the very old.
  • Pets are also at risk.
Ant Bites

It is very hard to separate the stinging and biting ants from the many species of harmless ants. We will cover the two most common biting/stinging ants you are likely to encounter in the US.

Harvester Ants
The Harvester Ant

The Harvester Ant

There are 22 species of harvester ant, commonly known as “Red Ants”, in the U.S., with only one species (Florida harvester ant) found east of the Mississippi River. Their nests are located outside around door steps, paths, yards, and especially in open fields. Harvester ants feed on seeds and vegetation, often resulting in desolate surroundings up to 20 feet away from the nest.

Harvester ants are also quite aggressive if the nest is disturbed, these ants bite the intruder and hang on tenaciously while inflicting a very painful sting. The reaction to the sting spreads along the lymph channels with pain lasting for several hours. Some species will leave the stinger in the wound, causing symptoms to last for several days. One harvester ant bite can be the equivalent of 12 bee stings!

Harvester ant bites approximately 1 hour after initial stings.

Harvester ant bites about 1 hour after initial stings.

Unlike the lesions left by fire ants, the lesions of the harvester ant do not form pustules and they usually clear within a few days. Treatment is symptomatic only.

Fire Ants

Introduced from South America into the United States between 1933 and 1945 the fire ant gets its name from their painful stings.

Fire ants range in color from red-brown to black, and grow up to a quarter of an inch in length. They build nests or mounds about a foot high, usually in grassy areas like lawns and pastures. Unlike most anthills, fire ant nests have no single entrance—rather, the ants crawl all over the hill. Fire ants are very aggressive when their nest is disturbed. If provoked, they swarm on the perceived intruder, anchor themselves by biting the skin, and then sting repeatedly.

Fire ant mound found in Texas pasture.

Fire ant nest found in Texas pasture.

Fire ants nests are small cities, sometimes containing as many as 200,000 crawling citizens, according to Texas A&M. Inside these busy colonies, female workers maintain structure and feed their young, while male drones breed with the queen or queens. In communities with more than one queen, when young queens mature, they fly off with males to create new nests.

Fire Ant Bites
Example of fire ant bites

Example of fire ant bites

Another example of fire ant bites

Another example of fire ant bites

If you are the victim of fire ants, chances are you’ll know. They attack in swarms, racing up vertical surfaces (such as your leg) when their nests are disturbed. They are aggressive and determined. Each fire ant can sting several times.

To identify fire ant stings, look for groups of swollen red spots that develop a blister on the top. Stings hurt, itch, and last up to a week.

The itching caused by the sting can result in the tearing open of the pustule allowing infections to set in which can become life threatening especially in a survival/SHTF situation.

Infected fire ant stings about 10 days after being stung.

Infected fire ant stings about 10 days after being stung.

Another infected fire ant sting about 7 days after initially being stung.

Another infected fire ant sting about 7 days after initially being stung.

Some people will have an allergic reaction to a fire ant sting which can be life threatening and require medical intervention ASAP to avoid death or long-term disability.


Treat mild sting reactions by:

  • Washing the affected area with soap and water
  • Covering with a bandage
  • Applying ice can reduce the pain
  • Topical treatments include over-the-counter Benadryl or cortisone creams to reduce pain and itch.

Bites/stings should go away in about a week. Scratching can cause the bites to become infected, in which case they may last longer.

Anyone can develop an allergy to fire ant stings at any time, although people who’ve been stung before are at higher risk of doing so. A dangerous allergic reaction can be fatal.

Signs of a dangerous allergic reaction include:

  • Sudden difficulty with breathing or swallowing
  • Nausea and/or dizziness.

Symptoms develop quickly after exposure. It’s critical to get emergency medical treatment at once if you see signs of an allergic reaction to a fire ant sting. Those with a known allergy to fire ant bites/stings should make sure that they have an Epi-Pen (or other treatment as directed by their doctor) with spares in their survival kit/Bug-Out-Bag.

Bees and Wasps
Typical Honey Bee

Typical Honey Bee

Yellow Jacket Wasp

Yellow Jacket Wasp

Bee and wasp stings are common causes of medical problems. Bees and wasps, together with fire ants, are all related insects that belong to the Hymenoptera order. Bee and wasp stings can cause significant reactions, ranging from localized pain and swelling to serious and even potentially fatal conditions. At least 40 deaths occur each year in the U.S. as a result of serious anaphylactic sting reactions.

Below are examples of a beehive and a wasp’s nest  found in trees  so you have an idea of what to look for and avoid if you find yourself in a survival situation.

Beehive found in a tree.

Beehive found in a tree.

Large wasps nest secured in a tree.

Large wasps nest secured in a tree.


Most stings arise because an insect perceives a threat to their colony. Bees and wasps commonly sting because an intruder has neared the hive or nest. Loud noises (such as lawn mowers), bright or dark colors, and certain perfumes or perfumed body products may also encourage stings. Some types of insect venom contain pheromones, which attract other members of the colony and induce them to sting. When bees or wasps sting an individual, they inject venom under the skin of their victim.

Honey bees, including killer bees, have barbed stingers that tear off when they try to fly away after stinging, so these bees die after the sting and thus can sting only one time. In this case the stinger and venom sac typically remain embedded in the skin of the victim.

Bumble bees, hornets, yellow jackets, and wasps are able to sting multiple times, since their stingers are smooth and can be easily withdrawn from the victim’s skin.

Bee and wasp venoms vary according to species but typically contain toxic components as well as antigens that stimulate an immune response.

Signs and Symptoms of a Sting

There are three types of reactions you may have in response to a bee or wasp sting, local, systemic and toxic.

Local Reactions

Local reactions are the most common type of reaction to a bee or wasp sting.  The symptoms include:

  • Pain
  • Swelling
  • Warmth
  • Redness at the site of the sting
  • Itching may also be present

These symptoms begin immediately after the sting and often last for only a few hours. Depending upon the type of insect, the stinging apparatus may still be visible in the affected skin. Large local reactions have a greater degree of swelling that can last for up to a week, sometimes associated with nausea and/or tiredness. These reactions are not allergic reactions.

This is considered a "Normal" reaction to a wasp sting despite the ugly apperance.

This is considered a “Normal” reaction to a wasp sting despite the ugly appearance.

Normal, "local" reaction to a bee sting.

Normal, “local” reaction to a bee sting.


Systemic Reactions

Systemic (body-wide) allergic reactions occur in people who have produced a type of antibody known as IgE antibody against the same insect venom as a result of a previous sting.

Systemic allergic reactions are estimated to occur in a very small percentage of stings the symptoms include:

  • Hives and flushing of the skin
  • Difficulty breathing due to swelling of the pharynx and epiglottis and narrowing of the bronchial passages.
Swelling of the eyes, throat, and lips are common in Anaphylactic reactions.

Swelling of the eyes, throat, and lips are common in Anaphylactic reactions.

Examples of hives and rashes associated with bee and wasp stings.

Examples of hives and rashes associated with bee and wasp stings.

The reaction may vary in severity from mild skin hives to life-threatening reactions. The most severe immunological reactions are known as anaphylaxis and occur more commonly in males and in people under 20 years of age.

In severe reactions the symptoms can include:

  • Hypotension (low blood pressure),
  • Circulatory disturbances
  • Breathing difficulty that can progress to fatal cardiorespiratory arrest.

Most people who develop anaphylactic reactions have experienced previous stings with few problems. Once an individual has experienced an anaphylactic reaction, the risk of having a another  severe episode is about 60%.

Toxic Reactions

Toxic reactions are a direct result of toxins in the venom rather than the body’s immune response. Most often these are due to multiple simultaneous stings that introduce an unusually large amount of venom into the body. The symptoms can include:

  • Fever
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Headache
  • Fainting or dizziness
  • Convulsions/Seizures

Hives, rash, and skin symptoms are less common in toxic reactions than in allergic reactions. Because bee and wasp venom are strong stimulants of the immune response, people who have experienced toxic reactions may produce antibodies to the venom and be at risk for future systemic anaphylactic reactions to stings.


Most bee and wasp stings can be treated at in the field, but some cases WILL need more advanced treatment. Anyone who has had a previous anaphylactic reaction to a bee or wasp sting should have an Epi-Pen )or other doctor recommended treatment) and spares in their survival kit or Bug-Out-Bag and be ready to use them if they are stung.

You should also seek medical care if any of the following conditions are present:

  • If you have received multiple stings
  • If the sting is located in the eye or eye area
  • If symptoms of infection (pus, drainage, fever, increasing pain and redness) develop
  • If the initial symptoms worsen or persist for longer than 24-48 hours
  • If a sting produces severe symptoms in young children, the elderly, or those with chronic medical problems

First aid for a bee sting involves:

  • Immediate removal of the stinging apparatus (if present).
Removal of bee stinger by "scraping" with a hard edged tool.

Removal of bee stinger by “scraping” with a hard-edged tool.

  • Application of ice or cold packs to the affected area.
  • Antihistamines such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl) may be taken to relieve itching and burning. Acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil) may be taken for pain relief.
  • If the sting site becomes infected, your doctor may prescribe a course of antibiotics.

If it has been more than 10 years since your last tetanus booster immunization, get a booster within the next few days.

Treatment for a mild allergic reaction (such as a rash without any breathing difficulty) usually involves the administration of antihistamine medications and sometimes steroid medications to reduce inflammation.

 Treatment for Anaphylactic Reactions

The treatment of choice for life-threatening anaphylactic reactions is epinephrine via an Epi-Pen or other Epi-Autoinjector. Make sure that you have spare Epi-Pens in your survival kit and Bug-Out-Bag so you can treat an anaphylactic reaction.

Other emergency medical treatments may also include steroid and antihistamine medications and insertion of a breathing tube. Intravenous fluids and medications to support cardiovascular function may also be required.

Wasp Stings
This is considered a "Normal" reaction to a wasp sting despite the ugly apperance.

This is considered a “Normal” reaction to a wasp sting despite the ugly appearance.

Wasp sting 3 days after initial sting showing signs of what is considered mild allergic reaction.

Wasp sting 3 days after initial sting showing signs of what is considered mild allergic reaction.

Unlike bees, which have a barbed stinger which becomes “stuck” in your skin and can continue to inject venom after the bee flies away leaving the stinger and venom sack behind, wasps have a “smooth”, non-barbed stinger that allows them to sting a victim multiple times.

The signs and symptoms of a wasp sting are very similar to those of a bee sting. The types of reactions to a wasp sting are also very similar and include the same local, systemic, and toxic reactions.

Treatment for Wasp Stings
  • Wash the area with cool water.
  • Apply an ice-cube or ice pack to reduce swelling or cold flannel.
  • If the sting is very painful or very itchy, apply a soothing lotion, such as calamine lotion, or a suitable cream or ointment containing an antihistamine or local anaesthetic.
  • An analgesic, such as paracetamol or aspirin, may also be taken if appropriate. Always read the label and remember there are restrictions for the taking of medicines in children, dependent upon age. Do not exceed the recommended dose.
  • If you are concerned, or if symptoms persist (for example, with major swelling), consult a health care professional.
  • If the sting has occurred in a sensitive area, such as close to the eye, nostril, ear, or in the mouth, consult your doctor immediately, or go to hospital.
  • If you begin to have difficulty breathing or swallowing, or find yourself wheezing or feeling dizzy call an ambulance or go to the hospital immediately. As with bees, a wasp sting reaction can be very serious. Although anaphylactic shock is rare, it is important to recognise that it can nevertheless occur. Likewise, should you experience any other symptoms soon after a sting, such as nausea and vomiting, stomach ache, diarrhoea, seek help immediately.
  • If you are aware that you have an allergy to bee and/or wasp stings, make sure you carry an Epi-Pen with you at all times.

As with a bee sting if you suspect an anaphylactic reaction to a wasp the treatment of choice is Epinephrine administered via an Epi-Pen or other epi-autoinjector.

Wasp Bites?

Wasp stings are sometimes presumed to be a wasp bite. Wasps do bite, however, they do so when biting caught prey or using their mouths in building their nests. However, in the case of the wasp stings are the means of defence, and if you have been stung by a wasp (yellow jacket), it is because the creature has perceived you as a threat.

Avoiding a Bee or Wasp Sting

You can take preventive measures to decrease your chance of being stung by an insect. Effective prevention tips include the following:

  • Avoid, and do not disturb, hives and nests
  • When participating in outdoor activities, avoid fragranced body products, bright colors, and sugary drinks
  • Wear long sleeves and long pants outdoors
  • Do not walk barefoot outdoors
  • Do not swat at swarming bees or wasps
  • Exercise caution around fruit trees and blooming flowers
  • Keep garbage away from outdoor activity areas

Now that you have a basic understanding of the various creepy crawlies that can cause you pain and in some cases death, you can take the steps necessary to either avoid them or update your survival and first aid kits with the equipment and medications necessary to treat the various bites and stings you may receive in a survival/SHTF situation or when you are just out in the woods camping.

I look forward to reading any comments and as always, Train to Survive!


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