If you’ve ever been the victim of a surprise bee sting (or worse yet, a wasp sting), you know just how unpleasant the experience can be. However, while bees and wasps may at first glance appear similar (read about how to identify different types of wasps and carpenter bees vs. bumble bees), the two species’ ability to sting, their venom and even the pain index of their stings can differ significantly.
What to Do for a Wasp Sting
Before we can talk about how to approach wasp sting treatment, it’s important to know the behaviors of two commonly misidentified stinging species – bees and wasps – so you can identify which insect may have stung you.
No matter the species, both bees and wasps share one very important trait: only the females of each will sting, and generally only when provoked or defending a nest. Wasps’ and bees’ stingers are actually egg-laying organs called ovipositors1, so for all these creatures, the female alone is capable of inflicting that painful attack.2
Another common trait, and one that is often misunderstood, is the number of times a bee or wasp can sting. Except for honey bees, which have a barbed stinger that they often leave behind in the skin, most bees (including carpenter bees and the generally docile bumble bee) and wasps (including hornets) can actually sting multiple times and do not lose their stinger. Wasps have a sheath that slips over their stinger, allowing them to disengage it from the skin.3
How to Treat Wasp and Bee Stings
The treatment of wasp stings and most bee stings is not so different on the surface. However, there is one important detail to consider: the honey bee’s barbed stinger.
How to Treat a Honey Bee Sting
As we mentioned earlier, females of the honey bee species will leave a stinger inserted into the skin after their attack. This is the first, and perhaps most important, difference. When treating a “traditional” (honey bee) bee sting, you must first remove the stinger from the skin, as the stinger may cause infection and allow the venom to continue being absorbed into your tissue. It’s important to work quickly. Rather than using tweezers or your fingers, use a blunt-edged object with a flat surface, such as a playing card or credit card to gently scrape the stinger off the surface of the skin. This way, you are less likely to accidentally squeeze more venom from the sac of the bee into your skin.4
How to Treat Wasps and (Most) Bee Stings
When dealing with wasps and carpenter bees, however, there is no stinger to be removed and this step can be skipped.
Minor stings can be treated at home. Wash the area with soap and water, and treat pain with over-the-counter pain relievers and cold compresses. And if you’re not current on your tetanus vaccine, your doctor may recommend a booster.6
What Is the Best Home Remedy for a Wasp Sting?
For a more natural wasp sting remedy, vinegar (as an acid) has been used to neutralize the alkalinity in wasp venom. To apply topically, use a small amount of vinegar on a cotton ball and dab the area several times, before leaving on the skin for a few minutes.7
What Is the Best Home Remedy for a Bee Sting?
Similarly, baking soda has been used as a countermeasure (because of its alkalinity) to treat bee venom, which is generally more acidic. In this case, you can mix a small amount of baking soda and water (about ¼ cup baking soda to 1–2 teaspoons water) to make a paste that can help relieve the affected area.8
Bee and Wasp Sting Symptoms
Bee and wasp sting symptoms are, on the whole, very similar. Most people that have experienced a bee or wasp sting notice a small, angry swelling around the area and some mild to medium-intense pain, generally for 10–15 minutes. The Schmidt Pain Index, developed by Dr. Justin Schmidt, classifies a traditional yellow jacket sting as a two, on a scale of one through four (four being the most painful) with the pain lasting for about ten minutes. In comparison, a warrior wasp is thought to cause pain for up to 150 minutes and is rated at a four on the Schmidt Pain Index!9
Beyond the symptoms of minor swelling and some short-lived pain, some people experience more extreme reactions from wasp stings and bee stings.
Localized Reactions: Local reactions can range in severity but generally include more noticeable swelling that extends beyond just the afflicted area.10 It can also sometimes lead to blistering. Swelling can last anywhere from 48 hours to an entire week.
Systemic Reaction: Systemic reactions are generally more severe and include variations of hives, anaphylactic allergic reactions and life-threatening circulatory collapse.
While these are less common occurrences, it’s important to be mindful after a wasp sting (or bee sting for that matter) and to monitor the reactions closely.
One final piece of interesting trivia, – published by the BMJ medical journal, is that “patients allergic to wasp venom are rarely allergic to bee venom,11 further delineating the differences between bee and wasp stings.
- Faizan Arif and Mollie Williams, “Hymenoptera Stings,” Stat Pearls, National Institutes of Health, last updated March 9, 2021, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK518972/.
- “Wasps,” National Geographic, accessed April 17, 2021, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/invertebrates/facts/wasps.
- “Why Do Honeybees Die after They Sting You?,” EarthSky, June 23, 2011, https://earthsky.org/earth/why-do-bees-die-after-they-sting-you.
- ”Insect Stings,” Johns Hopkins Medicine, accessed April 16, 2021, https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/insect-stings.
- “Bee Stings,” Mayo Clinic, accessed April 16, 2021, https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/bee-stings/diagnosis-treatment/drc-20353874.
- Carol DerSarkissian, ed., “Bee and Wasp Stings Treatment: First Aid Information for Bee and Wasp Stings,” WebMD, last reviewed May 31, 2020, https://www.webmd.com/first-aid/bee-and-wasp-stings-treatment#:~:text=Take%20acetaminophen%20(Tylenol)%20or%20ibuprofen,within%20the%20next%20few%20days.
- Erica Roth, “Wasp Stings: Reaction Symptoms and Treatment,” ed. Deborah Weatherspoon, Healthline, August 6, 2019, https://www.healthline.com/health/wasp-sting.
- Ruben Castaneda, “What to Do If You Get Stung by a Bee,” CHOC Children's, October 21, 2020, https://www.choc.org/news/what-to-do-if-you-get-stung-by-a-bee/#:~:text=Mix%201%2F4%20of%20a,the%20sting%20and%20mitigate%20inflammation.
- Compound Interest, “The Chemical Compositions of Insect Venoms,” Compound Chem, August 14, 2014, https://www.compoundchem.com/2014/08/28/insectvenoms/.
- Pamela W. Ewan, “Venom Allergy,” BMJ 316, no. 7141 (1998): 1365–68, https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.316.7141.1365.
- Ewan, “Venom Allergy.”