Nothing can ruin a late-summer barbecue or fall outing more than having to swat at wasps. You might have run into one lately: its distinct long, yellow and black body, and its love of sugary drinks are two of the yellow jacket wasp’s hallmarks. The bug is also known for its painful sting — but did you know that it could also be deadly? It’s true – researchers have now figured out which type of yellow jacket is more likely to cause a lethal reaction than others.
There are 17 species of yellow jackets, which are members of the wasp and hornet family Vespidae, throughout North America. The study that prompted this article looked at the two most common species in the eastern U.S. — Vespula maculifrons and Vespula germanica.
The goal of the study, which was done by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Asthma and Allergy Center in Baltimore, was to see why some people had severe reactions when stung by a yellow jacket while others had a mild response or no reaction. They recruited 111 volunteers and put them through tests involving a total of 175 wasp stings over three years.
The results showed that the Vespula maculifrons poses more of a danger, as its sting caused systemic reactions more often than the sting of the Vespula germanica did. More interestingly, 41% of the study participants who had suffered these kinds of reactions before had a reaction to the Vespula maculifrons sting, while only three percent of people who had not had such a response in the past experienced one during the study when stung by this particular yellow jacket.
A “systemic reaction” occurs when the venom of the wasp causes problems beyond just reddening and pain around the area where the stinger went into the body. It basically means that the body is suffering an allergic response to the yellow jacket sting. Symptoms include lightheadedness/dizziness, itchiness, hives, nausea, stomach cramps, swelling of the tongue or throat, problems breathing, and fainting (due to a rapid dip in blood pressure). At its most severe, a systemic reaction is termed “anaphylaxis,” which can be fatal.
If you have had an allergic reaction to a wasp sting in the past, see your doctor or allergist. There is immunization available that can help protect you. You should also be sure to carry an “EpiPen,” which is an autoinjector that can be used to treat anaphylactic shock. For all of us, even those who have never had a reaction to a yellow jacket sting (you might never have been stung by the Vespula maculifrons), it’s best to avoid areas around wasp nests.
Note that the yellow jacket wasps are usually at their peak in the summer and fall months. If you are stung and start showing some symptoms of a severe systemic reaction, call 911 immediately.