How to Avoid Insect Stings

Discover easy ways to outsmart stinging pests like bees and wasps.

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For me, fall must-haves include visiting an apple orchard for a little u-pick fun and attending autumn festivals. Fall weather is ideal for outdoor events, but there’s one flying insect in the ointment: yellow jackets. By autumn, winter’s sole survivors have multiplied, colonies are mature and these insects are out in full force.

Yellow Jacket PD.jpg

Unlike honeybees, yellow jackets can sting repeatedly when provoked.

Unlike honeybees, yellow jackets can sting repeatedly when provoked.

Photo by: Mick Telkamp

Mick Telkamp

Whether I’m sipping cider at autumn gatherings or tackling fall garden chores, I work diligently to dodge yellow jackets and other sweet-seeking stingers. My philosophy contrasts with that of Justin Schmidt, a trained entomologist who actually tries to get insects to sting him—all in the name of research. He describes stings with a pain scale rating of 1 (barely noticeable with no lingering effects) to 4 (blinding and often intensifying over time). With all of his experience enticing even the most mild-mannered insects to sting him, Schmidt has good advice on how to avoid getting stung.

Know Your Bugs

Become familiar with various stingers, especially those buzzing around your garden. Most are not aggressive, and any that are male simply cannot sting (the stinger is part of the female reproductive system). Many, like shiny black carpenter bees, are solitary bees tending a brood of one or two young, which means they’re not defensive. They only sting in response to being caught or trapped. The insects to worry about are colony builders, including yellow jackets and baldfaced hornets, which defend their nests aggressively. A baldfaced hornet (pain rating 2) inflicts a sting Schmidt says is “rich, hearty, slightly crunchy and similar to getting your hand mashed in a revolving door.”

Skip Loose Clothing

Sweat Bees on Red Raspberry Flowers

Sweat Bee

Sweat bees deliver a mild sting only when pinched.

Photo by: Julie Martens Forney

Julie Martens Forney

Clothes with loose collars and sleeves provide easy access points for stinging insects to get next to your skin. Loose sleeves also lead to chance stings. For instance, sweat bees don’t typically sting, but if they get caught in a sleeve and get pinched, you’ll experience a sting (pain rating 1). It’s a sting that smarts for a moment, per Schmidt, who calls it “light and ephemeral—a tiny spark has singed a single hair on your arm.”

Wear the Right Colors

When spending time outdoors, stick to a palette that doesn’t attract or threaten insects: light tan, light green, white or really light pink. Colors to avoid? Blue and dark colors of any hue. Also skip gray and red, which bees and wasps perceive as black—the color of predators (bear, skunk, raccoon, birds). Sadly, we don’t know if laundry detergents with UV brighteners, which pump up colors, really attract insects. Floral prints catch an insect’s eye. Err on the safe side, and save those for indoor occasions.

Don’t Flail

Bumble Bees on Joe Pye Weed

Bumble Bee

Bumble bees are important pollinators and sting only when trapped or threatened.

Photo by: Julie Martens Forney

Julie Martens Forney

“Never flap or flail,” Schmidt says, “even though it feels so good to do that. Look through the eyes of a bee or wasp, who see predators as active. They move, flap (think birds) and threaten. If you do that, you’re acting just like a predator.” Move slowly and deliberately. If an insect is acting aggressively, back off slowly, arms at your sides. Stinging insects typically warn before attacking. Bumblebees, which only sting when threatened, express their I-can-sting-you warning by lifting a leg (or two or three) toward you, eventually waving their rear end to show off their stinger. With colony insects like hornets, the you-better-run sign is when an insect flies off the nest toward you and then returns to the nest. If you see that pattern, it’s time to skedaddle.

Save Your Breath

If your go-to move to shoo away a frisky wasp is to blow it away, think again. Stinging insects recognize mammalian breath, registering it as a CO2 cocktail that likely belongs to a potential predator. When you find yourself in a face-off with a bee, hold your breath.

Inspect Before Revving the Engine

Yellow Jacket on Dill Flower

Yellow Jacket

Yellow jackets are known for their fierce, repeated stings and attraction to sweets, including nectar-rich flowers.

Photo by: Julie Martens Forney

Julie Martens Forney

Whether you’re mowing, string trimming or pruning, look over the area prior to working. Keep an eye out for insect nests, and listen for buzzing. Sometimes you’ll hear a nest before you see it. Yellow jackets are notorious for a lightning fast strike when a mower roars over an underground nest. Schimdt rates a yellow jacket sting a 2, calling it “hot and smoky. Imagine W.C. Fields extinguishing a cigar on your tongue.”

Choose Open Cups

Many stinging insects, including bees and wasps, are attracted to sweet drinks. At outdoor events, sip from containers you can close, or use open cups that allow you to look before you sip. Soda cans are notorious for hiding stinging insects. Avoid letting children drink from open cans. Schmidt once received a Western honey bee sting to the tongue (pain rating 3). He describes that sting pain as “immediate, visceral, debilitating. For 10 minutes life is not worth living.”

To learn more about stinging insects, check out Justin Schmidt’s tales of insect chasing and sting encounters in The Sting of the Wild.

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