Bites and Stings

By Ann Barnes, EMGV

The past week has been a tough one for this gardener. First, I disturbed a hidden fire ant mound and received multiple stings on both ankles. Two days later, while weeding near my mailbox I came too close to a new wasp nest and was stung through my garden glove. Fortunately, I have a well-stocked first aid kit handy and was able to treat the stings and return to the garden. Are you prepared for bites and stings that may happen when you’re outside?

Mosquitoes, ticks and chiggers bite in order to feed. While their bites can cause itching and may carry disease causing organisms, these insects are not venomous. To avoid bites from these insects, use repellent and wear clothing that covers the skin. Remove ticks promptly. Itchy bites can be treated with an anti-itch cream. Seek medical attention if you have symptoms of a mosquito or tick borne illness (such as headaches, fever, nausea, and muscle aches).

Bees, wasps, and fire ants sting as a defense, injecting venom with each sting. While bees can only sting once, wasps, yellow jacket, hornets, and fire ants are capable of multiple stings. Stingers are modified egg-laying structures, so only females are capable of stinging.

Fire ants swarm when their mound is disturbed. Many ants may climb onto a person, attach to the skin with their mandibles, and will begin stinging within 10 seconds. Fire ant venom causes a burning sensation. After several hours, white pustules develop at the site of the stings. If you are stung, quickly move away from the area and brush all ants from your body. Carefully wash the area and apply cold compresses. To reduce the chance of infection, avoid breaking the pustules open. Pain can be treated with over the counter analgesics, and itching with an anti itch cream.

The best defense for fire ant stings is avoidance. Wear protective clothing and avoid visible mounds. Be alert for foraging ants when weeding gardens or walking in tall grass.

Bees, wasps, and other related insects are not deterred by insect repellents, so avoidance is the best protection from stings. Protective, light colored clothing is also recommended. Avoid wearing perfumes or using highly scented soaps when working outside. Do not swat at bees or wasps. Picnic areas and garbage cans can attract some kinds of stinging insects, while others are fond of flowering plants. Be cautious and observant when near areas that wasps and bees may find attractive. Wasps, in particular, can be aggressive in guarding their nests, particularly in late summer and fall.

Bee and wasp stings can be very painful. Other symptoms include redness, swelling, and itching. If you are stung, try to remove the stinger by scraping, NOT squeezing, the area. Squeezing or using tweezers could cause more venom to be released. Ice the area or use cold compresses to reduce swelling. A topical analgesic or anti itch cream can be used if necessary. Oral analgesics or antihistamines can be taken if necessary.

Be prepared, be observant, but don’t let the fear of insect bites keep you from enjoying the outdoors!

Warning: if you or another person is stung by an insect and has any of the following symptoms:
difficulty breathing (wheezing or shortness of breath)
difficulty swallowing
loss of consciousness


The Buzz About Insect Bites and Stings

Using Insect and Tick Repellents Safely

Fire Ant Stings

Bees and Wasps

Non-Honey Bee Stinging Insects in North Carolina

Other things that might bite if you encounter them in your yard:



Caterpillars and Wheel Bugs

Fire Ants – Be Gone!

Fire ants are on my mind (and at my job), so I’m sharing this previously published article by our Consumer Horticulture Agent, Michelle Wallace.    -Ann Barnes

mound2(photo: NCSU)

By Michelle Wallace

Lately the calls have been coming into the master gardener office with requests for information on getting rid of fire ants. While fire ants have been in Durham for a few years now, many have not had to confront them until recently, especially if you live north of I-85. It only takes one bad experience to know the importance of managing fire ants in the landscape. Not sure about what kind of ants they are? Well take a long stick and poke at the mound, if they’re fire ants, they’ll swarm the stick to attack you, and if you don’t drop that stick you have pustules at ever place you were stung. Most of the other ant species are none aggressive and won’t swarm or try to attack you. They’ll just continue to go about their business.

While red imported fire ants are an unwelcome nuisance, it is important to remember that ants in general are considered beneficial insects and help in the degradation of waste and consumption of other insects. Fire ants have a particular affinity for greasy foods so it is important to keep areas both outside and inside the house clean since they know no boundaries when foraging for food. It is also helpful to know that native ants will defend their territory and will help to prevent red imported fire ants from spreading. For this reason, research studies now recommend spot treating each mound instead of trying to eradicate all fire ants by broadcasting baits over large areas.

Fire ants mounds contain ants of several sizes ranging from 1/8 to 1/3 of an inch. The mounds themselves vary in size and shape, but can get very big and deep with upwards of a 100,000 ants. Every spring and summer winged male and female ants will swarm in the air and mate. After mating the females become queens and start new mounds. Many will not survive, but many do and begin new mounds as far out as 10 miles from the original mound! If the new queen survives she will shed her wings and burrow down into the ground and begin laying eggs. In the fall, those new mounds will begin to appear, which is why we are noticing so many new mounds right now.

The good news is that fall is a great time to begin managing the fire ants. They are foraging for food and as the temperatures decrease their food sources are reduced making fire ant baits when properly applied effective. The goal is to kill the queen. While she lives she will continue to lay hundreds of eggs daily. It can take several weeks to kill all the ants in the mound.

Liquid drenches are another method of eliminating fire ants in a mound. Drenches are recommended for high use areas where the chance that someone will be stung is increased. Drenches typically work by contact. Fire ants that come in contact with the liquid drench pesticide immediately die. The challenge of this method of control is that there are no guarantees that the queen will come in contact with the pesticide and die. If the queen does not die, the mound will survive. Wow, sounds like the makings of a movie “Fire Queen Strikes Back.”

While you may be successful in killing the fire ant mound, monitoring for future mounds is very important. Don’t expect 100% control. There will always be new queens out there starting new mounds.

For more information about fire ants or to positively identify the fire ants contact the Durham County Master Gardeners at 919-560-0528 and request Insect Note – ENT/rsc-35 or search .

* Remember to always read and follow the directions on a pesticide label before applying pesticides of any kind.

(Ed. note: There are organic options for control of fire ants. Please see this article for more information on organic control, including types of products available. Before trying home remedies, please read this post from our national Extension blog to see which ones have been proven ineffective.)

Three Upcoming Presentations

Extension Gardener Series at Sarah P. Duke Gardens – Urban Trees

Locate, choose, and plant trees successfully in Durham County.  Taught by Master Gardener Gene Carlone. Class is free/ Registration required.

When:                 March 13, 2014 (Thursday) 6:30 pm -8:00 pm
Where:               Sarah P. Duke Gardens, 420 Anderson Street, Durham
Contact:            Sara Smith 919-668-1707

Briggs Avenue Community Garden Series – Insect Management – Fire Ants

Learn insect management and fire ants and how to control them.  With Michelle Wallace, Durham County Horticulture Agent  This class is free / Registration is required.

When: March 15, 2014 (Saturday) 10:00 am to 11:00 am
Where: Durham County Cooperative Extension, 721 Foster Street, Durham
Contact: Pana Jones   919-560-0525 or

Durham Garden Forum – Growing Tomatoes

Learn the about secrets to success for tomatoes in North Carolina. Durham County Extension Master Gardener, Charles Murphy will share his wisdom in growing tomatoes.  The Durham Garden Forum in partnership with NC Cooperative Extension: Durham County Center. Free for Members of Durham Garden Forum / $10 for non-members.

When:                 March 18, 2014 (Tuesday)   6:30 pm -8:00pm
Where:                 Sarah P. Duke Gardens, 420 Anderson Street, Durham