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.

Health Risks of Bee and Wasp Stings

Signs and Symptoms


Mild “ordinary” reaction (Nonallergic reaction)

  • Instant, sharp burning pain at the sting site
  • A red welt at the sting site
  • Slight swelling around the sting site
  • Itching

Typically, the swelling and pain go away within a few hours, but may last 1-2 days.

  • If present, gently remove the stinger by scraping it out with a fingernail, the edge of a credit card, or the dull side of a knife. Never squeeze the stinger or use tweezers for removal as this will push more venom into the skin.
  • Wash the sting area with soap and water or an antiseptic wipe.
  • Apply a cold compress and antihistamine cream or paste of baking soda and water to relieve itching, swelling, and pain.
  • Treat severe itching with an oral antihistamine (i.e., Benadryl®).
  • Take an over-the-counter pain reliever for pain as needed.
  • Seek immediate medical attention if a sting causes swelling in the face, eyes, lips, tongue, or throat.
  • Avoid scratching the sting site and seek medical care for signs of infection.
  • Anyone stung is at increased risk of contracting tetanus. If you have never received a tetanus vaccine or have not had a tetanus booster in the last five years, seek evaluation by a medical professional.

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)

  • Extreme redness
  • Swelling at the sting site that gradually enlarges over the next day or two.

Tend to resolve over 5 to 10 days.

Non-life-threatening allergic reaction

  • Hives or rash
  • Swelling away from the sting site
  • Headache
  • Minor respiratory symptoms
  • Stomach upset
  • Follow the treatment instructions above and seek a medical evaluation.

Severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis)

Usually occurs within minutes of being stung. Symptoms include several of the following:

  • Skin reactions, including hives, itching, and flushed or pale skin
  • Swelling of the face, eyes, lips, tongue, or throat
  • Difficulty breathing, wheezing
  • A weak, rapid pulse
  • Nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea
  • Dizziness, fainting, or unconsciousness

Life-threatening and requires emergency treatment!

  • Immediately call 911!
  • Ask the person having an allergic reaction whether they are carrying an epinephrine autoinjector (i.e., EpiPen®, AUVI-Q®). If available, ask whether they want your help to inject the medication. If yes, this is done by pressing the autoinjector against their outer thigh. 
  • Put the person on the floor on their left side to prevent choking if they vomit.
  • If you see a stinger in the wound, gently remove it.
  • Loosen tight clothing and cover the person with a blanket. Do not give the person anything to drink.
  • If there are no signs of breathing, coughing, or movement, begin CPR if trained. Do uninterrupted chest compressions, about 100 every minute, until paramedics arrive.

Multiple stings

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:

  • Nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea
  • Headache, dizziness, vertigo, or fainting
  • Fever
  • Convulsions, seizures

Multiple stings can be a medical emergency, especially in children, older adults, and people who have heart or breathing problems.

  • Seek medical attention immediately if you start to feel sick after receiving multiple stings.
  • If you do not feel sick, follow the treatment guidelines for mild and non-life-threatening allergic reactions above.


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)

  • Thick body with a division between thorax and abdomen
  • No silver hair on the face
  • Typically, hairy with flattened, hairy hind legs to assist in pollen transport
  • Stocky legs
  • Range from 110- to 1-inch in length
  • Mostly seen foraging among flowers for nectar and pollen
  • Narrow body with a very thin waist
  • Silver hair may be present on face
  • Usually, no or few hairs on the body
  • Spindly long legs
  • Range in size, from - to 1½-inches long
  • They are scavengers that eat nectar, fruit, sweets, meats, and carrion (decaying flesh) and feed insects and spiders to their young

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.

Bee and Wasp Sting Prevention

Know when to expect bees and wasps.

  • Bees and wasps are active from spring to fall.

Know where to expect bees and wasps.

  • Their habitats are varied, living in wetland, woodland, grassland, and urban habitats.
  • Nests may be underground, near the ground on plant roots, stems, twigs, logs, in tree cavities, or hanging from shrubs, trees, cave entrances, or rock overhangs. Nests may also be found in and on structures and outdoor equipment.

Know why and how bees and wasps sting.

  • Bees and wasps are not typically aggressive and only sting in self-defense. Stings typically occur from stepping on a bee or wasp, swatting at it, touching it, or it gets tangled in clothing. Occasionally, a person may unknowingly disturb a hive or swarm when walking past or stepping on a ground nest, resulting in multiple stings.
  • Only female bees and wasps are capable of stinging and can sting multiple times, except for honey bees which lodge their stinger in the skin.

Know your risk.

  • Adults tend to have more severe reactions to stings than children and are more likely to die from anaphylaxis.
  • You are more likely to have an allergic reaction to a sting if you have had an allergic reaction to a sting in the past, even if it was minor. People who have a severe allergic reaction to a sting have a 25-65% chance of anaphylaxis the next time they are stung.
  • Workers with a history of severe allergic reactions to insect bites or stings should consult their doctor or an allergy specialist and discuss prevention measures such as immunotherapy (“allergy shots”) and obtain a prescription for an epinephrine autoinjector (EpiPen®, AUVI-Q®, etc.) to carry with them at all times. Additionally, they should wear medical identification jewelry stating their allergy.

Know what to wear and practice clean hygiene.

  • Wear light-colored, smooth-finished clothing. Avoid bright colors or floral prints, which can attract bees and wasps, and dark colors that may be perceived as a threat.
  • Wear closed-toe shoes, try to cover as much of the body as possible, and avoid wearing loose-fitted clothing that can tray stinging insects next to the skin.
  • Have good hygiene and avoid perfumed soaps, shampoos, and deodorants. Do not wear cologne or perfume, and specifically avoid bananas and banana-scented toiletries. Bananas contain isopentyl acetate, a component in honey bees’ alarm pheromone that they release when threatened and causes them to enter fight mode.

Follow safe practices when working outside.

  • Avoid flowering plants when possible.
  • While working, identify hives and avoid provoking bees and wasps.
  • When eating outside, keep food covered and avoid drinking sweet beverages. Drink from wide-open cups or re-sealable containers and avoid using straws. Look before you sip.
  • Keep work areas clean and clear away garbage that may attract insects. Social wasps thrive in places with discarded food.
  • If you have a severe life-threatening allergic reaction to insect bites or stings, it is recommended that you notify your field crew of your allergy and where you store your epinephrine autoinjector in case of emergencies.

Know what to do if you encounter bees and wasps.

  • If you notice a bee or wasp nearby, stay calm and slowly walk away from the area. Never swat at an insect, as these aggressive movements may cause them to sting you in defense.
  • Do not jump in water because some bees and wasps are known to hover above the water, continuing to sting once you surface for air.
  • If stung, immediately move away from the area even if you can’t see what stung you.
  • If attacked by several stinging insects, cover your mouth and nose and run to get away. Note, social bees and wasps release an alarm pheromone when they sting, which attracts others in their colony to attack.
    • Get indoors if possible (i.e., car, building).
    • If outdoors with no shelter, run to a shaded area.
  • If an insect enters your vehicle while driving, stop slowly and open all windows before getting out.

Social Bees and Wasps – of Most Concern


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 - 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, - to -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 -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.

Solitary Bees and Wasps – of Least Concern


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.

Velvet Ants(Mutillidae)

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.


  1. CDC-NIOSH – Bees, Wasps, and Hornets:
  2. CDC-NIOSH – Fast Facts: Protecting Yourself from Stinging Insects:
  3. CDC – QuickStats: Number of Deaths from Hornet, Wasp, and Bee Stings:
  4. Fairview Health Services – When to worry (or not worry about a bug bite):
  5. IDNR – Native Bees PDF:
  6. IDNR – Native Bees Website:
  7. IDPH – Bees and Wasps:
  8. Mayo Clinic – Anaphylaxis:
  9. Mayo Clinic – Bee sting:
  10. Missouri Department of Conservation:
  11. National Capital Poison Center – Bee Stings: Is It an Allergic Reaction?:
  12. National Park Service – Warning Coloration:
  13. New York Fire Department – Bee Sting Safety:
  14. Ohio State University Extension:
  15. Pest World – Stinging Insects 101:
  16. Pest World – Stinging Insects:
  17. Purdue University Extension
    1. Social Bees and Wasps:
    2. Solitary Bees and Wasps:
  18. University of Illinois Extension – Illinois Bees:
  19. University of Minnesota Extension:
Last Updated: 3/18/2022