How to Avoid Bee and Wasp Stings
The Usual Suspects
Bumblebees, honeybees, wasps, yellow jackets and hornets: when it comes to stinging insects, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. To avoid getting stung, it helps to understand “the usual suspects” and what motivates them to attack.
With the exception of Africanized honeybees in some of the U.S. southern states, bees are generally mild-mannered. They live in geometric wax hives and in the wild are known to inhabit hollowed-out tree trunks. Bees are generally yellow, brown or black, and their bodies are compact and chunky. They are usually very hairy. Pollen captured and transported on the bees’ hairs are what helps fertilize the blossoms that turn into fruits and vegetables. Bees gather and feed on nectar and pollen from flowers.
Bees sting when they feel they need to protect themselves or their hive. It’s strictly defensive. Away from the hive, foraging bees are usually too busy to bother about passersby. Unlike bumblebees, which have a smooth stinger and can sting repeatedly, honeybees can sting only once. Honeybees have a barbed stinger, which, when deployed, gets stuck in the victim’s skin. As the bee alights, the stinger is ripped from its’ thorax, leaving it embedded in the skin while venom is pumped into the wound.
All wasps develop as predators or parasites of other insects such as flies, caterpillars and spiders. They’re also scavengers. Wasps are carnivores and hunt their prey, although some also visit flowers for nectar. Where bees are chunky, wasps have more elongated bodies, longer legs, much less hair, and have a pinched or “wasp waist.” Male wasps, which are nearly hairless, have a minor role in pollination.
There are several types of wasps but social wasps, such as yellow jackets, account for the overwhelming majority of stinging incidents. The larger the colony, the more aggressive they become—usually in late summer or early fall when food is in short supply.
Yellow jackets produce papery nests made from rotted wood pulp and saliva, but these are usually hidden. Yellow-jackets nests can be found behind logs, walls, underground in abandoned rodent dens, under the eaves or over-hangs of roofs and porches, as well in hidden nooks under playground equipment.
Although wasps feed on other insects, they are highly attracted to fruit, sweetened drinks and protein-rich foods like meat and fish.
Wasps sting to protect themselves or their hive. Unprovoked wasp stings are rare. Unfortunately, it’s easy to unwittingly provoke them. If you unknowingly smack or squash a wasp, pheromones are released. Such powerful scent-signals on one’s skin or clothing will alert other wasps to attack you!
Wasps are one of the commonest uninvited guests at summer picnics. Food and sweetened drinks are powerful draws. It’s not at all unusual for wasps to crawl into drinks containers and soda cans unseen—only to sting the victim’s mouth or lips in an attempt to escape from being swallowed.
Wasps defend their colonies very aggressively and are known to attack intruders who get within 7-8 yards of their nests.
Much larger than most wasps, and with a proportionately more powerful and painful sting, Hornets are a small subset of wasps that are not native to North America. European hornets are found all along the east coast of the U.S. Like other wasps, they are known to be extremely aggressive and can sting repeatedly.
How to Avoid Getting Stung
1. Don’t smell like a flower.
Think scent-neutral. Avoid smelling sweet or overly floral. Keep away from heavily perfumed soaps, laundry detergents and additives, as well as colognes, hair products, lotions, oils and flowery deodorants. These strongly scented products attract bees and wasps! Once they figure out that you are the source of these delightful aromas, they will want to get close and investigate.
2. Don’t smell like a bear.
Bees and wasps become agitated by the strong odor of sweat. If you’ve been running or biking and smell ‘as bad as a bear,’ which, by the way, is one of their natural predators, you may provoke them. To keep under their scent-radar, freshen up—preferably with unscented soap and water before any planned encounters with strenuous yard work or the great outdoors where you’ll be likely to meet.
3. Dress the part.
Tuck in your shirt. Dress in light-colored, close-fitting clothing, with long pants and sleeves. Bright floral patterns attract unwelcome attention, as do dark colors. Bees tend to associate dark clothing with the color of bears and skunks, two of their natural enemies in the wild and may respond defensively to your black jeans. Ditto for dark hair. Your best bet is to cover it with a hat.
4. Don’t drink out of soda cans.
Be careful when eating fruits and sugary food outside. Cover all food and drinks. Wrap and properly dispose of peach pits, melon rinds, apple and orange peels. Put them and any empty drinks cans in a covered refuse container. Also, when drinking outside, use a cup. Yellow jackets are notorious for crawling into drink cans unnoticed.
5. Don’t go barefoot.
Wasps often make their nests in the ground. Bees are very likely to be sipping nectar from clover flowers in the grass. Foot protection, even just flip-flops, will reduce the risk of an unexpected sting.
6. Keep your distance.
Try to stay away from nests and hives—they will defend their territory. Also, keep your car windows rolled up. If you find you’re in the car with an unwanted stinging passenger, try to pull over safely. Open your windows and car doors to encourage it to leave.
7. Bad Vibrations.
Bees and wasps feel threatened by strong vibrations—like lawn mowers and string trimmers make. Avoid power mowing or trimming close to nests and hives.
8. Stay calm and carry on.
Pretend you’re British. Don’t flail your arms excitedly and become hysterical when confronting a bee or wasp. Stay calm. Rapid, sudden movements are perceived as threatening and only encourage stinging.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Questions & Answers
If I huddle next to my big dog, will bees or wasps sting us or leave?
That's hard to say. If the dog is agitated or has a strong doggy scent, they may be put off and feel threatened. Of course, if you smell like shampoo or deodorant or any floral scent, they may still be interested in you regardless of the dog. Think neutral scent whenever you have to be out near bees and light, and no bright colors. Bees are also wary of dark colors like dark brown and black as they remind them of their natural predators, bears. Use common sense and enjoy the outdoors!Helpful 5
Are there better times of day to hike to avoid wasps?
I'm not aware of better times of the day to avoid wasps, though wasps do change their feeding habits towards the end of summer. See https://www.rentokil.ie/blog/wasps-dos-and-donts/ for the low down on wasp behavior that goes beyond the scope of this article.