Buzz Off! 7 Ways to Avoid a Bee or Wasp Sting
Plus, the weird thing humans do to make bees feel threatened
At long last, spring has sprung and we’re spending more time outside. Of course, during spring — and summer — one can always depend on at least a few uninvited guests threatening to ruin all the fun: bees and wasps. The worry of being stung by a bee or wasp can really be stressful, especially for the small number of people who are allergic to the venom.
With the exception of Africanized bees, also known as killer bees (found in the Southwestern United States), honeybees and bumblebees are non-aggressive. So if you discover either buzzing close by, you shouldn’t feel too scared. “The bee is just trying to figure out if you are a flower with pollen, or if you may be useful to it in some way,” says Richard Glatter, MD, an emergency room physician at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. “When it realizes you’re not, it will often fly away."
Yellow jackets (which often get mistaken for bees, but are wasps) can behave more aggressively. “I find that yellow jackets tend to be more of a problem, but that’s probably because they are more interested in human food and have more chances for interaction with people,” says Reed Johnson, a bee researcher and an assistant professor in the department of entomology at Ohio State University.
Taking steps to avoid being stung by a bee or wasp means not enticing them in the first place. Here’s the experts’ advice on how to do that.
1. Dress to detract
Bees and wasps gravitate to bright-colored clothing. They also prefer dark clothing to light. “Wear white, beige or khaki when you are outside” to make yourself less attractive to both, says Glatter. Bees don’t see light-colored clothing as easily as they see dark clothing, he says. Also, avoid wearing loose-fitting clothes, since gaps make it easy for bees and wasps to get in. Once they find their way into a billowy blouse or loose-fitting skirt, they can become trapped and sting. “Wear clothing with tighter cuffs, and keep baggy shirts tucked in to stay safe,” advises Glatter.
2. Forego the flip-flops
Yellow jackets live in holes in the ground, which is why walking barefoot or wearing flip-flops can be risky, says Johnson. Bees, meanwhile, may go in search of nectars in the small clovers on your lawn.
“If you step on a bee, it will likely sting you as a way of protecting itself," Glatter says. For the best protection, stick with closed-toe shoes or sneakers.
3. Skip the floral scents
Heading outside today? Think twice before you choose a shampoo or you might send a long-distance invitation to bees. Sweet-smelling scents are attractive to bees and wasps. This includes perfumes, colognes, floral shampoos and conditioners. “Wasps and nectar-seeking bees can be attracted [to these scents] from long distances,” says Johnson.
When planning to spend time outdoors, skip the perfume and cologne. Use unscented shampoos and conditioners, since the last thing you want is a bee or wasp tangling in your hair. “Anything you can do to keep [bees] out of hair, such as wearing a hat, will minimize stinging on the scalp, which is incredibly painful,” says Reed.
As for scented lotions and sunscreens, Johnson says typically these are not a problem because “they don’t seem to be as floral in odor as shampoos.”
4. Maintain your yard
Thick vegetation around your home provides ideal nesting places for wasps and bees, says Missy Henriksen, vice president of public affairs for the National Pest Management Association. Wasps also will seek patches of dirt on a lawn to make a nest. To prevent this, over-seed the lawn so that bare spots get filled in with grass.
5. Keep your picnic to yourself
Soda cans (empty or full) and picnic fare — meat, salads, you name it — invite stingers to the party. Bees really only want the sweet stuff, but wasps are carnivores, so they’ll go for meats and salads, too. “Serve drinks in clear cups so you can easily spot an insect before you sip,” says Henriksen. “Keep food covered in outdoor areas, and be sure to pack up food as soon as you’re done.” Toss trash in a covered can if available.
Residues from sugary and syrupy foods are a big lure for bees and wasps. At home, rinse out garbage cans. Keep garbage in sealed cans. Rinse out soda bottles and other containers before placing them in recycling bins.
6. Stay calm when a bee or wasp buzzes near you
The worst thing you can do if a bee or wasp is buzzing around you is to wave your arms or swat at it. “Sudden movements and changes in air pressure can trigger a bee or wasp to become aggressive and may increase the chances of it stinging you,” Glatter says.
7. Watch out for cranky wasps in late summer
“By the end of the summer, the wasps are hungry and they don’t have a lot to do, so they are more aggressive,” explains Johnson. Unfortunately, DEET and other insect repellents are not effective against bees or wasps. “Unlike mosquitoes, bees and wasps are not attracted to humans unless you're using a flowery shampoo,” says Johnson. “Therefore the benefit of any repellent will be minimal.”