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Medical Index
First Posted Sept 4, 2006
Sep 12, 2013

Bee Prepared

by Debora Johnson

Bees, Wasps, Yellow Jackets, Hornets

Hymenoptera is the fancy name, or order, for honey bees, yellow jackets, yellow hornets, wasps and bald faced hornets. It is estimated, however, that there are over 300,000 species of Hymenoptera in the world. Approximately 120,000 have been identified by scientists. The continent does not matter-humenoptera is the order.

To the equestrian these are of particular importance because of the outdoor nature of the sport. Not only is the horse impacted by these stinging insects, but so is the rider. It is important to be able to identify the insects, know their habits, know the perils, and know how to treat horse and human, if stung.

Honey BeeHoney bees: The honey bee is easily identifiable. They collect pollen and bring it back to the hive to make honey. They tend to be less aggressive unless their nest is threatened, or unless accidentally stepped on with bare feet. They like the clover. Once stung, a honey bee will die. It deposits its stinger in its victim. There is the fear that killer bees, which are extremely aggressive, will mix with our docile United States honey bee. Authorities are trying to stop this migration.

Bubmle BeeBumble bees: The bumble bee is larger than the honey bee. It is usually ¾" to 1 ½" most often black and yellow in color, hairy, collects and carries pollen on its hind legs. They are found collecting pollen in flowers, around homes, and other out buildings such as sheds, garages, and barns. Bumble bees are docile and unaggressive when foraging flowers, but vicious when their nests are threatened or disturbed. (Refer to picture)

Paper WaspWasps: Paper wasps are about 1 inch long. They have slender bodies with long legs and a slender waist which differentiates them from honey bees and bumble bees. The wasp's color varies from golden brown to darker browns. Sometimes they have patches of red or yellow on them. Paper wasps prefer to live near trees-orchards or vineyards-and hang their paper like nests in protected areas. Each nest hangs like an open umbrella from a stalk. Most of these paper wasps are considered unaggressive. Wasps can, however, sting repeatedly because they keep their stingers unlike honey bees. They continue to live to sting another day!

Yellow JacketYellow jackets: Yellow jackets are by far the most aggressive and most troubling of this group to horse-back-riders and horses. These insects often nest in the ground and defend their nests with great gusto when disturbed. They can also sting repeatedly and frequently do. Unlike honey bees, they keep their stingers. Yellow jackets often use abandoned rodent holes, rotten tree stumps, fence post bases, river banks, in houses, and in trees. Yellow jackets tend to be medium sized and have yellow bands around a black background. They have a very short, narrow waist. As the season progresses and colony numbers increase food becomes scarcer. In the fall they become scavengers and frequent picnic areas, barbecues, garbage cans, etc. As the weather cools down in the fall months the yellow jackets become sluggish. The fall temperatures tend to fluctuate in degrees. This makes the yellow jackets very unpredictable. They may sting you even unprovoked.

The horse-back-rider has to be particularly mindful when riding trails. As the horse's hooves hit the ground the vibrations can be felt in the ground nests. These vibrations get the yellow jackets stirred up. Usually one or two horses will pass without incident and then the riders and horses behind may suddenly be surrounded by stinging yellow jackets. They will follow you up to two miles, unrelentlessly. The yellow jackets prefer darker colors so black horses and bay horses are more preferable quarry. Expect your horse to turn into a bucking bronco when being stung and hold on for the ride of your life! My husband and I have been attacked several times by yellow jackets and I am highly allergic. In fact, I carry an epi-pen and antihistamine always. I also wear sunglasses to protect my eyes as yellow jackets gravitate to dark holes like your eyes, nostrils, mouth and ears. I wear light colors and stay away from patterns and bight colors. We also carry a medical kit with cortisone cream, medicated swabs, and alcohol swabs, in our saddlebags.

Balled Faced HornetBald-faced hornets: (Bald face hornets, white faced hornets, yellow hornets, aerial yellow jackets) While researching these insects, I discovered that they are not really hornets at all, but are wasps, or at least it would seem so. These insects live in wooded areas, and make large nests from chewed wood pulp. It is turned into a paper-like material. At times, their nests can get as large as a football. The nests are often seen hanging from trees and buildings. These insects are only aggressive if threatened but will vigorously defend their nests if bothered.

If Stung

If a stinger stays in your skin remove it gently. Do not squeeze it as this may inject more venom. It is recommended that a credit card or similar object be used in a scraping motion to flick the stinger out. Mild stings can be treated with a baking soda paste, a cold, wet compress, ice cubes, meat tenderizer, and calamine lotion to reduce the inflammation and swelling, or a hydrocortisone cream that can be purchased over the counter. Consult your doctor for the best recommendation.

Allergy to Insect Stings

Allergic reactions to the venom of hymenoptera can be life threatening to some. A reaction can be so severe that an individual can die within minutes. At least 1 in 50 people are allergic to insects of the hymenoptera family. Some of the symptoms of an allergic reaction may include:

  1. Hives, itching, swelling, and a reddish raised rash around the site or sometimes systemic-other places on the body as well
  2. Difficulty breathing or tightness in the chest
  3. Swelling in the neck, lips, tongue, eyes, mouth
  4. Hoarse voice, wheezing, coughing
  5. Dizziness or a sudden drop in blood pressure
  6. Cramping or widespread numbness
  7. Slurred speech
  8. Anxiety
  9. Mental confusion
  10. Nausea or vomiting
  11. Unconsciousness
  12. Anaphylaxis (the most severe reaction)

Anaphylaxis is an IgE antibody response to different antigens. The reaction is systemic, not localized to one spot. The response is quick usually beginning minutes or seconds after an allergen is encountered. It can close down the breathing passages and ultimately result in cardiovascular collapse and death.

Individuals who have had an allergic reaction or anaphylaxis have a 60% chance of a similar or more severe reaction if stung again. Mixed scientific information appeared on this while I was researching for this article; however, I prefer to use caution.

I happen to be allergic to hymenoptera so I am presently taking mixed vespid allergy shots from my allergist. The procedure takes 5 years for life time immunity. It is done progressively in an allergist's office. Within the first 3 months of shots I had some immunity. I carry an epi-Pen (epinephrine) on my person when riding, along with 2 allegra, 2 singulair, (both antihistamines) and 6 steroid type pills, a bottle of water, and a cell phone pre-programmed for help. I also tell my riding partners about this problem and give them instructions on how to inject me in my thigh with the epi-Pen, if necessary. Life threatening allergies can progress very rapidly, once stung. Immediate medical attention must be sought as one dose of epinephrine might not be enough. It buys about 15 minutes.

Allergy Society

Venom Immunotherapy

Venom immunotherapy is a long term treatment which has proven to be highly effective against future allergic reactions to insect stings. An allergist with expertise in this area first does a special blood test to make a diagnosis. If allergic, and it is deemed prudent, small doses of venom are gradually given. This stimulates the immune system to reduce the risk of future fatal reactions. I am presently in my last year of treatment. This injection venom immunotherapy has taken a tremendous burden off my mind, especially whein I ride. A medic alert bracelet should also be worn indicating the allergy.

Avoid Stings

Know that insect repellents DO NOT work against these stinging insects. However, in Borneo, we were told by our guide that pure eucalyptus tree extract does work and I wore it in the jungle the entire time. No stinging insects got near me and there were many out there. I have purchased it here and use it while riding. Common sense ways to avoid stings:

  1. Don't wear sandals or walk with bare feet in the grass.
  2. Don't swat at flying insects.
  3. Don't drink from open beverage cans. The sugar attracts insects and they crawl inside the cans and can sting you on your lip or in your throat!
  4. Cover food. Insects can smell it from 2 miles away
  5. Don't wear perfumes, hair spray, colognes, deodorants, body lotions, etc.
  6. Don't wear bright colors or patterned clothing, the bee may mistake you for a flower
  7. Don't wear loose clothing
  8. Don't wear jewelry or shiny things. I like rhythm beads on my horse but try to make them without any flashy color
  9. Don't squish a yellow jacket!!! They release some sort of an odor that can trigger a massive attack from the nest
  10. Wear proper attire, boots, sealed breeches and socks, hat, etc.

Stinging Insects and Color

Stinging insects are attracted to bright colors such as red, yellow, and orange. They are also attracted to patterns, particularly floral patterns. BLACK and dark brown are one of their favorite colors. In fact, they are so attracted to black that stinging insects may attack your eyes, nostrils, ears, or mouth because of those black holes. That goes for your horse, too. They are also more attracted to darker horses. White repels stinging insects. Blue soothes them.

Happy Trail Riding

I have found that when trail riding usually the lead horse disturbs the nests and the horses in the rear get most of the stings. Have a plan if attacked. Yell out bees and move out of the area as quickly as possible. The stinging insects often chase for about one fifth of a mile. Have something in your first aid kit for your horse as well as yourself. The vet can make a recommendation about this. I carry a topical steroid cream from the drug store, in my pack. I also carry alcohol pads to wipe off the stung areas. Banamine paste is always in my pack. The horses usually endure well from the stings; however, it is always best to check in with the vet. Again, I caution to be careful what colors are worn on a trail ride.

For More Information:

Wasp Control for You and Your Horse

Medical Index