How to Treat Bee Stings and Fire Ant Bites
A close encounter with a stinging insect can be painful — or worse. Here’s the buzz about treating and avoiding stings and bites
Bees belong to a family of insects with a strong defensive streak. That’s why they’re all armed. Many have stingers, for example. The honeybee can leave her weapon behind in your skin, where it continues to shoot venom. Fire ants, common in the South and Southwest, bite, injecting a toxin called piperdine that causes a burning sensation.
If you’re stung or nipped by one of these venomous buggers, it’s likely because you’ve been targeted as a threat to them or their kin, by swatting at them or disturbing their nest or hive. In other words, you were asking for it.
Of course, that’s little comfort when you’re in agony. A sting from a bee (or hornet, wasp or yellow jacket) generally results in pain (as in, it really hurts), swelling, inflammation and itching.
Even worse, for folks who are allergic to bee or fire ant venom, or who endure multiple stings or bites, an encounter with a bee or fire ant can be life-threatening, says David John, MD, a Connecticut-based emergency room physician. In the U.S., three to four times more people die of bee stings than from snakebites. In the South, fire ants cause a many as 30 deaths each year.
What to do if you're stung or bitten
If you're stung by a honeybee, remove the stinger as soon as humanly possible. The stinger will continue to shoot venom, called mellitin, into your skin for up to a minute. If you remove it within 15 seconds, the side effects of the sting will be less severe. Use the edge of a credit card or your fingernail to scrape it out. Don’t squeeze — that just shoots more venom into your skin.
The next steps apply whether you've been stung by a bee or bitten by a fire ant.
Clean it up. Wash the site of the sting or bite with soap and water. Don’t use alcohol, which will make it sting more.
Give it the cold treatment. Apply ice wrapped in a cloth or a cool compress to the spot to help reduce swelling and pain.
Take an oral antihistamine or a apply a topical one. This will help ease itching and inflammation, says John. You also can use an over-the-counter one percent hydrocortisone cream or a paste of baking soda and water.
Don’t scratch. Taking your fingernails to any type of bug bite can lead to infection.
Dull the pain. An anti-inflammatory painkiller (such as ibuprofen) can help if the sting or bite hurts. Also soothing are topical products that contain a skin coolant. The label will say something like “cooling relief.”
Go under cover. Fire ant bites often cause a blister that will rupture after a couple of days and put the wound at risk of infection. Keep the site clean and covered with a bandage. Do the same with bee stings.
Related: How to Treat a Jellyfish Sting
When to get emergency help
If you’re allergic to bee or fire ant venom and you aren’t carrying an epinephrine pen with you, waste no time getting to a hospital. You could go into anaphylactic shock. “Your lungs, lips and tongue will swell up, your blood pressure will drop, you won’t be able to breathe,” says John. “It’s pretty much a near-death experience.”
Get to an emergency room right away if you have multiple stings or you’re stung or bitten in an area, such as your mouth, that has lots of blood vessels that can carry the venom throughout your body.
Calling a truce with bees and fire ants
The best way to peacefully co-exist with venomous insects that sting or bite is to stay away from them — and to not do anything that might attract or annoy them.
Steer clear of swarming insects. The best way to sidestep an encounter with a fire ant is to be on the lookout for nests. According to the National Park Service, the nests of fire ants look like mounds of loose soil and mostly are found in open, sunny areas. Because fire ants access their nests from underground tunnels, there’s no opening in the top of the mound (like you’d see on an ordinary ant hill).
Don’t smell too good. Bees, hornets and wasps are attracted to strong scents. If you know you’ll be around them, opt for unscented skin and hair products and definitely don’t break out the Chanel No. 5. They also like vibrant colors and patterns, so dress in plain light-colored clothing.
Keep your feet covered. Wear closed shoes when walking through vegetation — especially where there’s clover or other blooms bees pollinate from.
Be cool. If a bee or wasp lands on you, react calmly. It may just be trying to get a whiff of you or, if you’re sweating, to get a drink. Once satisfied, it will buzz off.
Related: How to Create an Allergy-Free Garden