Depending on activity, location, and habitat, outdoor workers have the potential to encounter bees and wasps and should take the appropriate precautions to prevent a sting. According to IDPH, about one percent of the U.S. population is allergic to bee and wasp venom, and about 50 to 100 people die each year from stings, typically from a severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis) to the venom.
Signs and Symptoms
Mild “ordinary” reaction (Nonallergic reaction)
Typically, the swelling and pain go away within a few hours, but may last 1-2 days.
NOTE: If your local reaction is very large – several inches across – contact your doctor. Some people with this type of reaction may develop severe allergies or anaphylaxis.
Moderate reaction (Nonallergic reaction)
Tend to resolve over 5 to 10 days.
Non-life-threatening allergic reaction
Severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis)
Usually occurs within minutes of being stung. Symptoms include several of the following:
Life-threatening and requires emergency treatment!
If you get stung more than a dozen times, the accumulation of venom may induce a toxic reaction and make you quite sick. Symptoms include:
Multiple stings can be a medical emergency, especially in children, older adults, and people who have heart or breathing problems.
There are several species of bees and wasps in Illinois. They have four wings, long slender antenna, eyes on the side of the head, and most exhibit bright and distinctive warning coloration of contrasting yellow and black bands to alert predators that they are dangerous. Differences include:
Wasps (Includes Yellowjackets and Hornets)
Bees and wasps are either social or solitary. Social bees and wasps live in large colonies in elaborate nests, can be aggressive, sting when they feel threatened or agitated, defend their colonies, and are a major threat to field workers. Social bees include Honey bees and Bumble bees, and social wasps include Paper wasps, Yellowjackets, Bald-faced hornets, and European hornets. Female solitary bees and wasps nest alone, do not defend their nests, and are rarely aggressive, only stinging when captured or restrained. Male solitary bees and wasps patrol the area around a nest to ward off intruders, but they cannot sting. Solitary bees include Carpenter bees, Leafcutter bees, and Sweat bees, and solitary wasps include Cicada killers, Mud daubers, and Velvet ants. Sweat bees are most often responsible for stings experienced in the field as they are drawn to researchers’ sweat and equipment and will reflexively sting when trapped or touched. Be sure to research bee and wasp species you may encounter when working outside of Illinois.
Honey Bees (Apis mellifera)Identification: Hairy, predominately golden-yellow with brown bands, and typically ½- to ⅝-inch long. Not aggressive but will sting in defense of their colonies. Note, when stinging, the stinger detaches from their body as they fly away, killing the bee. Remove the stinger as soon as possible.
Habitat: They live in extra-large colonies of 20k-80k individuals. Nests are found in tree cavities, rock formations, and the exterior of buildings and structures, and in chimneys, wall voids, and attics of buildings. In spring, a colony may produce a swarm that will temporarily rest on trees or houses for 24-48 hours.
Honey bee. Credit: Pest World
Bumble Bees (Bombus spp.)
Identification: Hairy, ½- to 1-inch long, yellow or orange and black striped bodies. Not usually aggressive but will sting in defense of their colony.
Habitat: Live in colonies of up to 200 bees and typically nest underground in rodent burrows but may nest above ground near patio areas or decks and in insulating materials in wall voids or attics.
Paper Wasps (Polistes spp.)
Identification: Brownish with yellow or reddish markings and typically ⅝- to ¾-inch long. Common species include the northern paper wasp (P. fuscatus), a black to reddish-brown wasp up to ¾-inch long, and the European paper wasp (P. dominula) which is black and yellow. Nests look like upside-down umbrellas made of paper.
Habitat: Nests are built in shaded, high, protected sites, often hanging from branches of shrubs and trees, porch ceilings, the tops of window and doorframes, eaves, overhangs, or in attics, sheds, and outbuildings.
Yellowjackets (Vespula spp., Paravespula spp.)
Identification: Typically, ⅜- to ⅝-inch long with a shiny yellow and black striped abdomen and yellow and black face. Notoriously aggressive, more people are stung by yellowjackets than any other wasp or bee. Particularly in late summer and early fall when the population peaks and their insect food supply declines, causing them to scavenge food from trash containers and picnickers, and potentially sting unprovoked.
Habitat: Live in colonies of up to 4,000 workers. They construct paper nests up to several feet across. Depending on the species, the nest may be in the ground, near the ground on plant roots, logs, or timber, or aerial and attached to shrubs, bushes, houses, garages, or sheds. For example, nests of the eastern yellowjacket (Vespula maculifrons) are in the ground and nests of the German yellowjacket (Paravespula germanica) are in cavities, including crawlspaces, attics, and wall voids.
Bald-faced Hornets (Dolichovespula maculata)
Identification: A large yellowjacket species that is mostly black with white markings on the face, thorax, and toward the tip of the abdomen. Typically, ½- to ⅝-inch long. Considered aggressive and will attack when their space is invaded and in defense of their colony.
Habitat: Live in colonies of up to 700 members. Build papery basketball-sized oval nests up to 14-inches in diameter and 24-inches long, at least three or more feet off the ground. Nests are typically suspended in exposed locations like trees, shrubs, utility poles, overhangs, buildings, or other structures.
European Hornets (Vespa crabro)
Identification: Reddish-brown with dull yellow or orange abdominal stripes, a pale face, and typically ¾- to 1½-inch long. They are attracted to light and are known to land on lighted windows at night.
Habitat: Live in colonies of 200 to 400 members. Nest in hollow trees, abandoned beehives, barns, outbuildings, and in attics, porches, and wall voids of buildings. Sheltered nests have little or no envelope covering their cells, while unprotected nests are covered in a brown envelope made of cellulose from decayed wood.
Carpenter Bees (Xylocopa virginica)
Identification: Resemble bumble bees with yellow and black coloring but have a shiny black abdomen. Typically, ¼- to 1-inch long. Males are most encountered because they are territorial and guard the nest by hovering near intruders; however, their defense is a bluff since they cannot sting. Females are rarely encountered and will only sting if pestered.
Habitat: Females chew ½-inch holes in untreated wood, creating tunnels that run several inches deep. These nests are typically found in trees or untreated wood structures (i.e. fencing, frames, decks, eaves, wood siding). The nests may be reused, with additional tunnels being created, causing further damage. Fill holes to avoid structural damage, and painting and staining wood can sometimes deter them.
Leafcutter Bees (Megachile spp.)
Identification: Typically, ¼- to 1-inch long, brownish-black with several white bands across the top of the abdomen and white or yellow hair on the underside of the abdomen. Not aggressive, and only sting when mishandled.
Habitat: Create tubular nests in soil or pre-existing cavities such as beetle galleries, rotting logs, and hollow plant stems or twigs.
Sweat Bees (Halictidae)
Identification: Typically, ¼- to ¾-inch long and black or brown, but some are brightly colored, with metallic greens and blues. Their markings can also vary from green to red to yellow, often with bands. Most sweat bees are solitary and not aggressive, but field workers frequently encounter and are stung by them. They forage for pollen and nectar among flowers and land on mammals to obtain moisture and salts from perspiration to supplement their diets. If they land on you, a gentle scrape will usually persuade them to move on but pressing on a sweat bee may prompt it to sting. Stings may also occur if they are inadvertently touched when handling equipment they are resting on or if they get caught in folds of skin or under clothing. Stings feel like sharp, pin-pricks that rarely hurt more than a few minutes.
Habitat: Nearly all species nest in the ground, and a few nest in rotting wood or under loose bark of dead trees.
Cicada Killers (Specius speciosus)
Identification: Typically, 1½-inch long, yellow and black with rusty clear wings. Stingless males guard nests but are harmless. Females do not guard their nests, rarely stinging unless mishandled.
Habitat: Females burrow tunnels in the ground in open areas, preferring loose, workable soils in lawns, pastures, golf courses, nursery beds, etc. Nests usually occur in aggregations, containing a few hundred or so individual burrows. A mound of excavated soil can be seen at the tunnel entrance.
Mud Daubers (Sceliphron caementarium, Chalybion californicum, Trypoxylon spp.)
Identification: Typically, ½- to 1-inch long with a long and slender thread-like waist. There are three common species in Illinois: black and yellow mud daubers (Sceliphron caementarium) are brownish-black with yellow markings, pipe organ mud daubers (Trypoxylon politum) are black with blue wings and white coloring on the hind legs, and blue mud wasps (Chalybion californicum) are shiny, metallic blue and black with blue wings. These wasps rarely sting, and only if handled roughly.
Identification: An ant-like wasp typically ½- to 1¼-inch long, covered in velvetlike hair of bright red and orange, with black legs. Females are wingless and seen quickly running around in dry, sandy areas, and males have transparent, black wings, and typically fly a few inches above the females’ location. They are active July through September, during the hot, sunny part of the day. Females are not aggressive but will sting if held or stepped on, causing excruciating pain.
Habitat: Common in southern Illinois and found in open, dry, sunny, sandy areas near the ground nests of bees, wasps, beetles, and flies. Mated females forcibly enter the ground nests of other bees and wasps to lay their eggs that will hatch and eat the host’s larvae.