If you’ve ever been the victim of a surprise bee sting (or worse yet, a wasp or hornet 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 versus bumblebees), the different species’ ability to sting, their venom and even the pain index of their stings can differ significantly.
Before we can talk about how to approach bee and wasp sting treatment, however, 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. (If you want to know the solution ASAP, check out our Bug Bite Sucker. It's not just for mosquitoes!)
It’s also worth noting that all bees, wasps and hornets share one very important trait: only the females of each species will sting, and generally only when provoked or defending a nest. Wasps’ and bees’ stingers are actually egg-laying organs called ovipositors, so males cannot sting.1
Another common trait, and one that is often misunderstood, is the number of times a bee or wasp can sting. Except for honeybees, which have a barbed stinger that they often leave behind in the skin,2 most bees (including carpenter bees and the generally docile bumblebee) and wasps can actually sting multiple times and do not lose their stinger. Wasps even have a special sheath that slips over their stinger, allowing them to disengage it from the skin!
Symptoms of Bee, Wasp and Hornet Stings
Bee, wasp and hornet sting symptoms are, on the whole, very similar. Most people that have experienced a sting notice a small, angry swelling around the area and some mild to medium-intense pain, generally for 10 to 15 minutes. 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 area3. It can also sometimes lead to blistering. Swelling can last anywhere from 48 hours to an ten days.4
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. If you experience a systemic reaction, go to your nearest emergency room!
Read on to learn about the specific behaviors of all these species and how to treat their stings.
The honebbee, a species that was introduced to North America, plays an important role in agriculture (though conservationists caution that they are outcompeting native bees)5. These nonnative pollinators are social bees that live in hives, and true to their name, produce honeycomb and honey.
As we mentioned earlier, females of the honeybee species – unlike other bee species, along with wasps and hornets, all of which can sting multiple times – will leave a stinger inserted into the skin after their attack.
Honeybee Sting Treatment
Contrary to other bee and wasp stings, when treating a honeybee 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.6
Next, wash the area with soap and water. To reduce any swelling, apply a cold compress. For especially painful stings, you might want to take an over-the-counter anti-inflammatory (if your medical provider agrees, of course). If you’re allergic to bees or aren’t sure, or if you experience any severe pain or swelling, seek medical attention immediately.
Carpenter bees, those gentle giants of the bee world, bear a striking resemblance to bumblebees with their large size, but have less fuzz on their bodies and a shinier, mostly black abdomen.
Carpenter Bee Stings
Encountering a carpenter bee sting is like stumbling upon a shooting star – it's not an everyday occurrence. These peaceful creatures are more interested in their carpentry projects than in causing trouble, but the females will sting if they are threatened. If you find yourself on the receiving end of a rare carpenter bee sting, it’s good to know how to handle it. If you’re interested in learning more about carpenter bee behavior, we have just the thing for you here.
Carpenter Bee Sting Treatment
Carpenter bee stings can usually be treated with simple first aid measures. Start by washing the affected area thoroughly with soap and water, ensuring it’s squeaky clean. Then, apply a cold compress to help reduce swelling and provide some relief. If needed, you can consider over-the-counter pain relievers to ease any discomfort.7 Remember, if you experience severe reactions or have any concerns, it’s always best to seek medical attention.
Ah, the delightful bumblebees! Just take a moment to admire their adorable fuzziness and their larger-than-life personalities. These critters bring joy to gardens and meadows everywhere. But even the cutest of bees can pack a sting when they feel threatened.
Now, in all honesty, bumblebee stings are not the worst thing that can happen to you. (Unless you’re allergic, in which case then maybe it IS the worst thing. Head to your local emergency room, stat.)8 In any case, fear not, friends. For most of us out there, a bumblebee sting is more like a “gentle” reminder to be careful around these little pollinating protectors. They don’t do it often, but if they do sting, it’s typically because they mean business when they're defending their nest and working hard to keep our flowers blooming.
How to Treat Bumblebee Stings
First things first, give the sting site a good wash with soap and water. Cleanliness is next to stinglessness, or something like that! Then, grab a trusty cold compress and let it work its magic on the swelling. If that’s not reducing the pain, and you need an extra boost, it may be time to tag in the champ: over-the-counter pain relievers to the rescue!
All jokes aside though, if you experience any severe symptoms, have known allergies or feel an allergic reaction coming on, don’t hesitate to seek immediate medical attention.
These little bees may be small in size, but they have a big impact as one of nature’s most powerful pollinators. Think of mason bees as the tiny superheroes of the bee world: they’re here to save the day, one pollinated plant at a time!
But, let’s not drop our guard just yet. While it is extremely rare, don’t let their small size or docile nature fool you—they are capable of stinging like the rest of ’em!
Mason Bee Stings
Mason bee stings are very infrequent. In fact, the chances of getting stung by a mason bee are about the same as stumbling upon a four-leaf clover. (Okay, maybe a little less than that.) But still, if you do get stung, it’s important to follow the procedures discussed below. The good news is, a mason bee sting is going to hurt significantly less than that of a hornet or a wasp.
And, if you’re interested in learning more about exactly why people love mason bees so much (savvy gardeners try to attract them with mason bee houses) or about some of their natural behaviors, mosey on over here to satisfy that curiosity.
How to Treat Mason Bee Stings
Generally speaking, basic first aid measures are usually sufficient for treating mason bee stings. Just remember to clean the area thoroughly, and apply a cold compress. If needed you can always reach for an anti-inflammatory or over-the-counter pain reliever as well, as long as your medical provider gives you the go-ahead.
As with any other type of bee, wasp or hornet sting, if you find yourself experiencing more severe symptoms, get yourself to a doctor ASAP.
Leafcutter bee stings are not something we come across every day, but it’s good to be prepared just in case. The moniker of the solitary leafcutting bee refers to the insect’s unique behavior of cutting leaves in order to construct its nest.9
Leafcutter Bee Stings
If one of these cute little buzzers decides to give you a tiny pinch, you might feel some localized pain, swelling and redness similar to other bee stings. Not to worry, though! We’ve got you covered with some simple steps to soothe the sting.
How to Treat Leafcutter Bee Stings
Standard first aid measures, such as cleansing the area and applying a cold compress, can help alleviate pain and swelling from leafcutter bee stings. If you have concerns or experience severe symptoms…you know what to do!
It’s time to talk about those infamous, slender-bodied aerial acrobats known as wasps.
Their reputation for being a bit aggressive when they feel threatened precedes them, and when a wasp decides to say hello with its stinger, you’re going to feel it!
Wasp stings can be particularly painful and may result in severe localized reactions, like immediate pain, redness, swelling and itching10. In short, they’re no joke. That’s why it’s important to exercise caution if there is wasp activity in your area, and whatever you do, avoid provoking them! To understand more about wasp behavior, and to learn how to distinguish them from other species, give this post a once-over.
Wasp Sting Treatments
If you're stung by a wasp, well... by now I’m sure you know the procedure to follow! Promptly cleanse the area with soap and water. Applying a cold compress can also help reduce pain and swelling. However, if your symptoms don’t subside or seem to worsen as time goes on, seek immediate medical attention.
Ah, the majestic hornet…said nobody ever…
They may not be nature’s cuddliest creatures, but their large size and determined attitude do make them quite the buzzworthy topic. When it comes to hornets, just remember it’s all about giving them their space. They’re known to be quite aggressive (especially when their nests are threatened).
Hold on to your hats, folks, because hornet stings pack a punch! The stings of a hornet can be particularly painful due to its large size and potent venom. It’s important to exercise caution around hornets and avoid provoking them. Not sure how to steer clear of these buzzing bandits? Find out everything you need to know to stay safely out of harm’s way here.
Treatment of Hornet Stings
Let’s talk about how to give those hornet stings some tender loving care. Step one: grab some soap and water and gently cleanse. Next, apply a cold compress, and say goodbye to swelling and hello to some cool relief. And finally, if you need an extra ally to tackle the discomfort, you know who to call!
Allergic reactions, swelling or unusual physical changes? Best to err on the side of caution and seek medical attention sooner rather than later.
So, my brave friend, that’s about all we have for you today! Remember to be cautious around stinging insects, and respect their space! If a sting does happen, follow these friendly tips: cleanse, cool down and find comfort. You may also want to try our Bug Bite Extractor. It’s not just for mosquito bites! Its gentle suction can help remove wasp, bee and mosquito venom for immediate relief.
The world of wasps, bees and hornets may hold potential for a bit of a sting, but it’s also a reminder of the incredible diversity of nature. Let’s appreciate these buzzing wonders while taking care of ourselves along the way.
- Joe Ballenger, “Why Can’t Male Bees (or Wasps) Sting?,” Ask an Entomologist, September 23, 2015, https://askentomologists.com/2015/09/23/why-cant-male-bees-or-wasps-sting/.
- “Why Do Honeybees Die after They Sting You?,” EarthSky, June 23, 2011, https://earthsky.org/earth/why-do-bees-die-after-they-sting-you.
- Pamela W. Ewan, “Venom Allergy,” British Medical Journal 316, no. 7141 (1998): 1365–68, https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.316.7141.1365.
- “Bee Sting,” Mayo Clinic, August 18, 2022, https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/bee-stings/symptoms-causes/syc-20353869.
- Alison McAfee, “The Problem with Honey Bees,” November 4, 2020, Scientific American, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-problem-with-honey-bees/.
- “Insect Stings,” Johns Hopkins Medicine, accessed August 28, 2023, https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/insect-stings.
- “Insect Stings,” Johns Hopkins Medicine, accessed August 25, 2023, 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.
- David Serrano, “Leafcutting Bees,” Featured Creatures, University of Florida, July 2014, https://entnemdept.ufl.edu/creatures/misc/bees/leafcutting_bees.htm
- Roth, “Wasp Stings: Reaction Symptoms and Treatment,” ed. Deborah Weatherspoon, Healthline, August 6, 2019, https://www.healthline.com/health/wasp-sting.