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Stinging Insects and Gardener Safety

by Stephanie Suesan Smith on August 15, 2011

Stinging insects such as wasps, bees, and ants are important pollinators and often eat pests in the garden.  They can also be pests, however, especially when they decide you are threatening them or their nest.  Getting stung isn’t just painful, it can be life threatening.

For most people, most of the time, getting stung hurts.  That pretty much sums their experience up.  There are two situations that get such people in trouble.  The first is typified by the much heralded Africanized honey bee.  Not only are these bees more likely to sting you, and do so farther from the nest than the more common European honey bee, their friends pile on.  People do not get stung by just one bee, but by dozens and even hundreds.  That big a dose of venom can put anyone in the hospital.

Fire ants are the same way.  You don’t get one sting, you get dozens.  Usually by the time you realize you have gotten in the fire ants, they are there in big numbers.  If you can’t get them off, you will get stung enough to make you sick.  I remember sitting in an ant hill as a small child and being bitten, and my parents had to remove my jeans and shake them out, then let the ants crawl off to protect me.

The second situation is more insidious.  As you get stung several times over the course of years, your body can take one of two attitudes.  The first is to gradually become immune to the venom, or at least more resistant to it.  The other is to become more sensitive to it.  This is the really dangerous part.  You get stung and nothing happens, and this repeats for a while.  Suddenly, you get stung and have a life threatening reaction to something that was no big deal in the past.  In extreme cases, people have died like this.

What are the signs you are getting in trouble?  If you have a lot of swelling at the site of the sting, tingling of the lips and mouth, scratchy throat, throat swelling, lips and eyelids swell, or difficulty breathing, you need to get medical attention immediately.  Especially if you are alone, do not delay.  Further, if your doctor determines it was a severe allergic reaction, ask about an epipen.  This is a preloaded syringe that you jab against your thigh to inject the medicine into your body to treat the allergic reaction.  Carry it in your pocket so you can reach it no matter what.  It you get some but not all of these symptoms, you need to ask your doctor if you are developing an allergy to the insect.  If so, follow the doctor’s instructions for carrying an epipen or other medication all the time.

Gardening is a pretty safe activity.  Taking a few precautions can keep it that way.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Sonny August 18, 2011 at 9:19 pm

I don’t remember if it’s (specifically) fire ants that do this. But there’s a species of ant whose individuals embed their mandibles so tightly into your flesh, that when you go to remove the ants, their heads often stay attached to your skin, while you’re only able to pry the insects’ bodies away (separating them from the heads)…
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Stephanie Suesan Smith August 19, 2011 at 6:03 am

That is bulldog ants. The natives used them as stitches to close wounds.

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weekend in ibiza August 30, 2011 at 2:04 am

One interesting thing I heard (wiht lots of testimonials that it works) is to put listerine in a spray bottle and spray the areas around your deck, table, firepit, or where ever you are. I heard it works good.

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Stephanie Suesan Smith August 30, 2011 at 5:16 am

I have not heard of listerine being used. I know many of the products used by people work for a few minutes, but none tested by scientists lasted more than 20 minutes. DEET lasts for hours.

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