What’s in a Sting?

What happens when you or your horse is stung by a bee or wasp? The effect can range from minor discomfort to a life-threatening situation. Here's why.

Pain is venom’s reason for being. When the mixtures of chemical compounds found in bee and wasp venom enter mammal flesh, they incite the pain sensors and raise a strong inflammatory reaction. The hurtfulness of the sensation drives potential predators away from the insects’ nests and may well instill a lasting aversion to anything that resembles the buzz of a venom bearer.


Because honey, carpenter and bumble bees share a close evolutionary background, their venoms are similar in chemical makeup.

The size differences in these related species influence the quantity of venom injected, and the venoms are different enough in their chemical makeups to cause slightly different reactions in human victims.

Yellowjackets, as members of the wasp family, have different proteins in their venoms than do bees, but the pain felt upon being stung by either species is very similar.

Anaphylactic shock is an overzealous immune reaction to foreign proteins that have entered the body, and the characteristics of the reaction are the same whether the protein is in bee venom, wasp venom or even in some ingested source, such as peanuts and egg whites. The body response is to a specific protein antigen, and the reaction to additional exposures can be immediate, violent and possibly fatal.

The venom proteins responsible for sting-initiated anaphylactic shock are phospholipase groups that are separate and distinct for bees and for wasps, which means people can be hypersensitive to one venom and not the other.

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