How to Treat Insect Stings With Easy Remedies

Take the “ow” out of summer stings with simple remedies that work.

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My garden is alive with insects, including bees, wasps and hornets. Weeding or deadheading easily becomes an exercise in self-control as insects are zipping by. It’s tough not to react when the bass buzz of a very large bee moves past your ear—unless you’re Justin Schmidt.

Velvet Ant

Velvet Ant

This small velvet ant is actually a type of wasp and delivers a mild sting.

Photo by: Jillian Cowles for The Sting of the Wild

Jillian Cowles for The Sting of the Wild

A biologist at Southwestern Biological Institute, Schmidt is a renaissance scientist on a mission to understand how stings work and what they do to the human body. His work focuses on insects in the order Hymenoptera: stinging ants, bees and wasps. Known among colleagues as “The King of Sting,” he’s experienced—and actively sought out—stinging insects. In the process he’s endured over 1,000 stings.

Schmidt created a sting pain scale, which rates pain from 1 (light) to 4 (blinding). The pain scale appears in his new book, The Sting of the Wild, which catalogs his quest to unravel the science of stings. On Schmidt’s sting pain scale, the familiar honey bee serves as a benchmark at 2. But Schmidt doesn’t just assign numbers to sting pain, he also pens a description. A Western honey bee sting produces a sensation that’s “burning, corrosive, but you can handle it. A flaming match head lands on your arm and is quenched first with lye and then sulfuric acid.” The common bumble bee also earns a 2 rating, with a sting akin to “colorful flames—fireworks land on your arm.”

Schmidt has traveled the world chasing insects, intentionally applying reluctant ones of interest to his arm if they fail to oblige with a sting as he catches them. A velvet ant (actually a type of wasp), known in many states as a cow killer, delivers a sting that rates as 1 to 3, depending on the “ant”—some pack more of a venom punch than others. If you encounter a velvet ant capable of a level 3 sting, expect to feel “hot oil from the deep fryer spilling over your entire hand.”

Tarantula Hawk

Tarantula Hawk

The tarantula hawk is a wasp that kills tarantulas.

Photo by: Nic Perkins courtesy of the US National Park Service for The Sting of the Wild

Nic Perkins courtesy of the US National Park Service for The Sting of the Wild

What insect delivers a sting rated a 4? The tarantula hawk, a wasp in Texas and the Desert Southwest, which hunts the infamous spider. While tarantula hawks are non-aggressive, Schmidt got stung on several occasions while trying to capture them. He describes the resulting pain as “blinding, fierce, shockingly electric. A running hair dryer has just been dropped into your bubble bath.” Definitely not a wasp you want to tangle with.

Remedies for Stings

When Schmidt gets stung, it’s for the advancement of science, which means he doesn’t seek treatment to dull the pain or other effects. If you get stung, he suggests sticking with simple treatments. Before using any treatment, if you’ve been stung by a honey bee, scrape out the stinger. Good sting remedies include:

  • Table salt—Pour into your palm, add liquid, make a paste and blop it on the sting. Let sit 3 to 5 minutes to remove pain.
  • Ice cube—Numb the sting area with ice to slow blood flow and reduce pain and swelling.

These remedies are ones I use with great success. Schmidt says he’s heard of them, but hasn’t tested them.

  • Broadleaf plantain or bee balm leaf—Grab a leaf or two of these plants and chew them into a paste. Place the paste on the sting. This reduces pain and swelling. Broadleaf plantain is a common lawn weed. Learn to identify it. I always let a little patch of plantain grow somewhere in the yard. That makes it a snap to grab a leaf, chew it, and treat the sting immediately after it happens. This is my go-to remedy when I get stung while mowing or gardening.
  • Lavender essential oil—Apply oil neat to sting site to reduce pain and inflammation. Best practice is to apply it several times both the day of the sting and the following day. I’ve used this on yellow jacket stings after applying plantain paste. The result was very little swelling and only limited pain for an hour or two.
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