Though bees and wasps both use venomous stings to defend themselves and their hives, they do so in different ways and in different amounts. This is because of physical differences between their stingers, as well as chemical differences in their venom. Despite these differences, you can expect to experience similar side effects for both bee and wasp stings.
Types of Stingers
Bees and wasps have different types of stingers, which affects the amount of venom that they can inject in a single sting. Wasps have smooth stingers, which allow them to sting a perceived threat multiple times -- they are also more aggressive than bees, and are likely to sting more than once. Honeybees, on the other hand, have barbed stingers that dig into the skin. After the bee stings, the stinger remains embedded in the skin and tears off of the bee as she flies away. Not all bees have these barbed stingers, though -- bumblebees, for example, have smooth stingers that allow them to sting multiple times, just like wasps.
Because of the differences in the ways they sting, bees and wasps inject different amounts of venom per sting. A honeybee, who can only sting one time, injects as much as 50 micrograms of venom in a single sting. As the stinger is embedded in the skin, it continually pumps this venom into the body, so the sooner you remove the stinger, the less venom it injects. It typically takes about 45-60 seconds for the full amount of venom to be released. A wasp injects a significantly smaller amount per sting -- only 2 to 15 micrograms -- but can do so more than once in a short period of time.
Sting Side Effects
Despite the different chemical compositions of bee and wasp venom, they have similar side effects. This is because because both types of venom make your body release histamine, which results in symptoms like those of a mild allergic reaction: itching, swelling, redness and pain where the sting was administered. Because the venom typically makes the site of the sting sore and achy, applying an ice pack can help dull the pain. The site may remain sore for several days as it heals.
Seeking Medical Attention
Different people have different reactions to bee and wasp venom. A person with a severe allergy may need immediate medical attention after a single honeybee sting, while a healthy person without a significant allergy can withstand 1,000 or more stings before reaching a lethal dose. If you don't know whether you are allergic and you've been stung, watch out for the symptoms of an allergic reaction, which can develop immediately or within 30 minutes. They include difficulty breathing, hives that spread, facial swelling, chest tightness and difficulty breathing. These symptoms also can lead to loss of consciousness, so if you believe you may be experiencing this type of allergic reaction, contact emergency medical services immediately.
- Boston Globe: How Do Bee and Wasp Stings Differ?
- University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Department of Entomology: Bee Stings
- UC Davis Center for Environmental Health Sciences: Bees, Africanized Honeybees, and Wasps
- US National Library of Health Medline Plus: Wasp Sting
- West Virginia University Extension Service: About Bee and Wasp Stings
Tom Ryan is a freelance writer, editor and English tutor. He graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with a degree in English writing, and has also worked as an arts and entertainment reporter with "The Pitt News" and a public relations and advertising copywriter with the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.