Bites and Stings
In the animal kingdom there are many creatures that can bite or sting
humans, pets, livestock or wildlife. Many of these bites or stings can
cause pain, death or reactions to our systems that can be mild to extreme.
This article cannot cover all scenarios, all bites, all stings delivered by
every animal or insect on the planet. It will, however, attempt to
describe the different problems encountered by humans and domestic animals that
are caused by insects, reptiles and others.
Not all insects, reptiles, animals cause pain, sickness, allergic reactions or
death. Even of those creatures that have the ability to bite or sting, not
all have the ability to puncture human skin. All spiders can deliver
toxins but very few can actually deliver these toxins deep enough through human
skin to actually cause sickness or death. (See Black
Widow Spiders, Hobo Spider, Brown Recluse Spiders.)
Of those that can puncture or cut human skin, most are defending themselves or
are looking for a blood meal. Chiggers, mosquitoes, fleas and ticks are
examples of those that have mouthparts that enable them to puncture skin for
feeding on blood. Horse Flies and Deer flies are examples of insects that
have mouthparts that actually cut skin (instead of puncturing) to get to their
food, which is blood.
Among the creatures discussed will be spiders, snakes,
mosquitoes, fireants, bees,
wasps, hornets, centipedes, scorpions,
chiggers and others. Whether the pain or discomfort is caused by teeth, stingers or even prickly body parts, no one enjoys the self defense mechanisms and feeding habits of pests found in fields and around the home.
Arthropods are insects that live primarily on land and have six legs. They represent about three-fourths of known animal life.
The actual number of living species could be as high as 10 million.
The orders that contain the greatest numbers of species are Coleoptera (beetles), Lepidoptera (butterflies and
moths), Hymenoptera (ants, bees,
wasps), and Diptera (true flies).
First, the creatures that are not insects: scorpions, snakes. Both scorpions
and snakes deliver painful (sometimes lethal) doses of
venom. The venom has a two-fold purpose: to aid in the capture of prey and
as a self defense mechanism.
The venom of snakes is a complex subject due to the
different types of snakes and the makeup of their different venoms. The
basics of poisonous snakes, pictures of poisonous snakes, their range and
description are covered in the Poisonous Snakes
Scorpions have a true stinger located at the end of
their tail. Many people are intimidated by the "claws" of the
scorpion but the pain delivered by this animal only comes from its
stinger. This stinger is primarily used to paralyze prey but when
cornered, the scorpion will defend itself. In the United States, most
scorpion stings are not lethal to humans. The severity and reactions to
the sting vary with the size, species and health of the scorpion as well as the
age and health of the person stung.
Scorpions feed on spiders, small insects, centipedes, other scorpions or
earthworms which technically makes them welcome around homes. However,
most people have a fear of scorpions and do not feel comfortable having them as
house guests. Parents of small children do not relish the idea of an
inquisitive child trying to play with this animal as its sting will in most
cases have the impact or feel of a wasp sting. Small children and the
elderly are more likely to have the worst results or reaction to the sting of a
scorpion. More information about scorpions and their control (if they
invade your home) can be seen on the Scorpions web
Centipede Sting, Millipedes
There are many stories about the bite or sting of Centipedes
and Millipedes, many of them are not based on fact
but, rather, fiction.
Millipedes do not have a stinger but there are
certain species that can cause irritation to humans due to certain chemicals
released when the bug is crushed.
Centipedes can vary in size and severity of sting, based on the particular
species, size and health of each centipede encountered. Centipede venom is
injected by a pair of modified legs that are located near the head. These
hollow appendages (which deliver venom into victim or attacker) are not always
visible unless the centipede is intent on using them. Reports vary but
deaths caused directly from the sting of a centipede are extremely rare.
The sting of a centipede can be quite painful, comparable to the sting of a
Centipedes do not search out and attack
humans. Painful encounters with this multi-legged creature occur when it
is cornered, disturbed or otherwise mishandled. Most reports of centipede
stings seem to stem from inquisitive children attempting to pick up the bug or
an adult simply touching it by accident. Many cases reported are simply
stories of someone rolling over on top of the centipede in bed. Waking up
to the painful sting of a centipede is as almost as frightening as it is
painful. Numerous people have compared the sensation to being burned by a
lit cigar are being stung by a large hornet.
Next in our group of bites and stings are spiders. The bite of a
spider varies with the species. All spiders have venom. Black Widow
Spiders and Brown Recluse Spiders are known and feared because their bites can
cause serious or uncomfortable reactions. Their venom differ (see more
about Black Widow Spiders, Brown
Recluse Spiders and Brown Recluse Bites)
but these spiders have one important thing in common: their bites are angled in
such a way as to puncture human skin and to deliver their toxins into our
system. Not many spiders can actually deliver their venom into
humans. Many people fear spiders; some of these fears are founded and some
are not. Spiders (like scorpions) are predators that keep insect
populations in check, making them a part of nature's pest control.
There can be many reasons for people to not want spiders in their home. A
fear of spiders or concern for children and the elderly are two of the most
popular reasons why people search for ways to eliminate
spiders from homes, schools, nursing homes and other human dwellings.
Hymenoptera is a group that includes insects
with true stingers. Bees, Wasps, Yellow jackets, Hornets,
Ants, Fireants belong to this group.
The fireant is an insect that bites and stings but the
bite itself is not what inflicts pain. This social insect will (when
disturbed or when its colony is disturbed) emits powerful pheromones that
attract and alarm other members of the colony. These pheromones call the
colony members to the attack. Once the fireant locates and contacts what
it perceives to be its enemy, it first bites its victim or attacker. This
bite is not intended for use as pain inflicting device but rather as a means to
hold on so that it can use its stinger. The fireants that cover your feet,
ankles and legs after you step on their mound are all female ants. The
stinger is actually a modified ovipositor which (by definition) is an egg laying
apparatus of a female insect.
After attaching itself to your skin with its teeth, the fireant can better
deliver its painful sting. The ant swivels around as it holds on,
delivering multiple stings in a circular pattern. The fireant stinger is
not barbed (as is the stinger of the honey bee) and does
not remain impaled in the skin. This allows each fireant to deliver many
stings without causing its own death. (Insects with a barbed stinger can
only sting one time, as the barbs cause the stinger to remain in its victim,
also causing death in the insect delivering the sting.)
Another difference between the sting of the fireant and the sting of other
insects lies in the substance injected by its stinger. Wasps, bees, yellow
jackets and other stinging insects deliver certain proteins into our skin that
cause the painful, burning sensation associated with their stings. The
fireant sting, however, does not contain this type of material. The venom of fireants
contains alkaloids combined with relatively small amounts of protein. This
venom is very effective for killing insects and also kills certain fungi and
The sting of a single fireant is not nearly as painful as a single sting from a
wasp or centipede. The pain and danger lies in the multiple stings
delivered by a single ant and (most important) the fact that fireants rarely
attack alone. Their powerful pheromones tell their colony members that
help is needed. The real pain of fireants comes from the combination of
hundreds of angry insects - and each one stings numerous times.
Bees, Wasps, Yellowjackets
Other stinging insects such as bees (female
carpenter bees, bumble bees), wasps,
yellow jackets can also cause
a great deal of pain but these stings can be painful if even a single sting is
inflicted on its victim. Mud
Daubers are stinging wasps but are not social insects as are honey bees,
Bees, wasps and hornets belong to the Family Vespidae.
The most dangerous encounter would be the attack
of multiple stings from these insects. Being social, these insects will
attack as a group if they sense that their colony is under attack. Wasps
and yellowjackets not only attack as a group but (just like the
individual can and will continue to sting until it senses that the perceived or
real danger has passed.
The barbed stinger of the honey bee prevents the bee from
stinging more than once. After stinging its victim (or attacker) the honey
bee loses its stinger. It flies away to die later on. The real
danger lies in the pheromones released by alarmed honey bees which attracts
colony members to the attack.
Much has been reported on the Africanized Honey Bee. The major note to be
made about this particular species is its aggressiveness. The Africanized
Honey Bee has the same venom in its sting as the more passive (although painful)
European bee. The danger lies in how many bees respond to the danger
pheromones and how persistent the insect is in defending against its
enemies. On average, the domestic honey bee will defend its nest in an
area which extends as far as 150 feet from the nest. The Africanized honey
bee will defend an area extending more than 400 feet from the bee's nest.
Diptera include Biting Flies
(horse fly, deer fly,
stable fly, etc.), mosquitoes. Insects in this
group do not sting but their bite can be painful or irritating. This group
is divided between those that cut skin and those that burrow or puncture
skin. These cutting, burrowing, puncturing actions are possible because of
the specialized mouthparts of each bug and are necessary for one important part
of their lives: feeding on the blood of animals. The female
mosquito and the female biting fly are both responsible for bites as they
have the need for blood meals. (Male biting flies are more likely to spend
their time gathering pollen, nectar and do not need blood in their diet for
reproduction or survival.)
Chiggers (the larval stage of the Harvest Mite) can
actually burrow into the skin of its host - but it does not remain there.
The chigger will burrow into the skin just long enough to get the blood meal it
needs to survive and to continue to grow into its final adult stage as a Harvest
Mite. Many people still believe that the burrowing insect remains in their
skin after feeding. This belief can be derived from the irritation caused
by the intruding insect.
There are substances in the saliva of the chigger that first desensitize the
area so that the host does not immediately react to the presence of the blood
feeding insect. There are also substances in the chiggers saliva that
prevent the wound (caused by its feeding habit) from healing too quickly, thus
insuring that the chigger is not trapped by coagulating blood. These
substances are very irritating to humans.
The desensitizer is very powerful, lasting for several hours. For this
reason, we do not feel the effects for up to 48 hours after being exposed to
chiggers. The redness and irritation associated with chiggers has given
these insects the nickname of Red Bugs. To determine where you were when
you encountered chiggers, count back 24 to 48 hours from when you began
exhibiting irritating signs of their "bite." For more about this
irritating little insect and how to eliminate them from your property, go to the
Chiggers Information article.
Mosquitoes have a mouthpart that enables them to
puncture the skin of people and animals. In this manner they can obtain
the blood meal they need to reproduce and to survive. Mosquitoes, fleas
and chiggers all have substances in their saliva that refine this feeding to
protect them from their hosts, substances that also cause irritations to our
skin. Mosquitoes, however, pose far more possible hazards to humans and
pets than most insects.
As these insect flies from one host to another, it
can easily spread certain diseases. The most notable are malaria and West
Mosquito Control article.
Female biting flies require blood meals to survive and reproduce but their
mouthparts are different from the flea or mosquito. Rather than puncturing
the skin to siphon a meal of blood, this group of insects actually cut or saw
the skin to expose the blood needed by the biting fly. This sawing and
cutting action brings immediate pain to the victim. Mosquitoes can be
repelled from feeding on humans by a product recommended by the CDC called
DEET. Biting flies, however, are rarely ever repelled by DEET
when it is used alone. For more information:
Biting Flies (Deer
Fly, Horse Fly and others) Mosquitoes
Biting Flies Mosquito
The bite of a tick does not inflict pain as does
the bite or sting of most insects discussed on this page but they are listed
here for their importance in health issues of people, pets and livestock as well
as importance as a general household pest.
Ticks are arachnids that attach themselves to a host or
hosts in order to obtain a blood meal. These blood meals are not only for
basic nutrition but are absolutely necessary in order for female ticks to
produce and lay her eggs. Varying among different species (which are
broken down into two basic groups: Hard Ticks
and Soft Ticks) the female might need multiple
blood meals or a single blood meal to further along her egg laying cycle.
Immature ticks (called nymphs) also need blood to further their development from
one instar (life stage) to another. Immature ticks can go without food for
much longer periods than can adult ticks. This is an important factor to
remember when dealing with an indoor tick infestation.
Ticks are important disease carriers, the most notable being Lyme
Disease. For more information on ticks and diseases, basic tick
biology and information on how to eliminate ticks from your home, property or
pets, go to the Tick Information web page. If you
only need information on how to control or prevent a tick infestation, go to the
Tick Elimination page.