Yesterday morning, my mom was out in the backyard when she was stung by a wasp. Turns out there was a wasp nest carefully hidden behind the clock in the grandkids’ outdoor play kitchen, and my mom came a little too close to the nest while she was busy cleaning the patio furniture. While she wasn’t exactly happy about being stung, she was glad it happened to her and not to one of her young grandkids.
As the day wore on, her thumb started to swell (and hurt). She hosted a party yesterday, and there were various opinions on what she should do for the pain. One person suggested mud, another toothpaste. At the end of the night, my aunt told her to try vinegar. She did and it worked. Who knew?
The experience made me wonder: How are bumblebees and wasps different? When do they attack? And what should we do when we get stung?
According to the University of Minnesota Extension, wasps look different from bees in that they are longer and slimmer. They are predators, feeding insects to their young, they love sweets, and they can become aggressive scavengers. Bumblebees, on the other hand, are robust and hairy in appearance. Their main role is to pollinate, pollinate, pollinate.
When a wasp or a bumblebee stings, it’s typically either defending itself or its colony. The venom is what hurts. Contrary to popular belief, they can sting more than once (the stinger is not left in your skin). A honey bee (similar in appearance to a bumblebee, only smaller and more shiny than furry) is the type of bee that can lose its stinger in your skin. They have little barbs on their stingers that get hooked into the skin, and when they try to fly away, their stinger—which is connected to their digestive system—gets torn out and the bee dies. According to the U of M, “If you are stung by a honey bee, scratch out the stinger (with its attached venom gland) with your fingernail as soon as possible. Do not try to pull out the stinger between two fingers. Doing so only forces more venom into your skin, causing greater irritation.”
In the very rare case that a person suffers a life-threatening allergic reaction (hives, trouble breathing), he or she should seek medical attention. (Antihistamines, like Benedryl, can slow an anaphylactic reaction, but will not stop it.)
If you are stung and you don’t have a history of severe allergic reactions, get away from the area in case there are other bees nearby, wash the sting site with soap and water, take ibuprofen, remove any jewelry that might become difficult to take off once the area swells, and apply ice for 20 minutes. An over-the-counter antihistamine, like Caladryl or Calamine lotion, can help with the itching. Home remedies, like honey, baking soda mixed with water, vinegar, meat tenderizer, and toothpaste can also help to neutralize the pain.
Editor’s note: This post was originally published in August 2012.