12 Bugs That Bite or Sting

Buzzing bees, marching ants and swarms of midges are becoming as much a part of summer as deckchairs, picnics and ice creams. 

Get the lowdown on these pesky creatures so you can spot and avoid the ones waiting to feast on you.

Wasps

The humble wasp (and closely related hornet) can give a nasty sting if it feels threatened, leading to itching and swelling. And wasp stings aren’t always harmless. Stings from wasps cause the most allergic reactions in the UK.

You won’t have an allergic reaction after your first sting by a wasp, but you can develop a serious allergic reaction (also known as an anaphylactic reaction) after one or more stings have “sensitised” your system.

Prevent wasp stings: Don’t try to swat wasps away. You’ll just make them cross and more likely to sting you. Instead, calmly and slowly move out of their way. Like other stinging insects, wasps love bright colours so wear white or neutral clothes to deter them. Look out for wasps’ nests in your home or garden and have them removed immediately by your local council or a pest control expert when you find them.

See a doctor if: you develop symptoms of a serious allergic reaction.

Bees

A bee sting feels similar to that of a wasp.

In the UK & Ireland, we have two types of bees – honey bees and bumblebees.

The honey bee leaves its barbed sting inside you then dies. It’s important to remove the barb to stop infection setting in.

Here’s how to remove a bee sting.

Bumblebees do not have barbed stings and can sting you many times if they want to. But bumblebees aren’t aggressive and are unlikely to sting unless provoked.

Bee stings are painful, but unless you have an allergy to bees, they’re unlikely to cause serious damage. If you’re allergic to wasp stings, don’t assume you’ll also be allergic to bee venom. Bee and wasp venoms are different and people who are allergic to wasp venom are rarely allergic to bee venom.

Prevent bee stings: Stay still and calm while a bee buzzes around you. It’s a myth that bees love sweet drinks. In fact, they can’t ‘smell’ sugar so they’re not attracted to sugary drinks. But they don’t like certain odours, so avoid wearing perfume or aftershave if you’re outside around bees.

See a doctor if: you develop symptoms of a serious allergic reaction.

Ticks

Strictly speaking, these small spider-like creatures aren’t insects, but ticks are increasingly becoming an unpleasant feature of strolls through UK woods, moors or thick grass. Once they’ve latched onto you, ticks cling to your skin and suck your blood. The bite doesn’t really hurt, but certain types of tick can transmit a condition called Lyme disease. Therefore, remove a tick as soon as you spot one on your skin.

Prevent tick bites: Wear long sleeves and trousers when you’re walking in forested, overgrown areas and use a tick repellent.

See a doctor if: you get a circular rash spreading out from where you were bitten or you develop the symptoms of Lyme disease.

Send any ticks you collect to Public Health England and they’ll identify them for you. Find out more about Public Health England’s Tick Recording Scheme.

Mosquitoes

Mosquitoes are a nuisance. Their bites cause intense itching and swelling and spoil many a picnic and camping trip. But while they transmit deadly diseases in other parts of the world, they don’t cause major harm in the UK.

Prevent mosquito bites: Smells and bright colours attract insects. Avoid using scented hand or body creams and strong perfumes and sparkly, colourful jewellery if you’re going to spend time outside. Insect repellents are also effective. Don’t forget to cover up and use repellent at night if you’re camping. Read more about how to treat mosquito bites.

Flower bugs

Flower bug may sound innocuous, pretty even, but don’t be fooled. Properly known as Anthocoris nemorum, these common predatory insects, which feed on aphids and mites, can take an aggressive bite out of human skin too. The wounds are very itchy and often slow to heal.

You can identify the common flower bug by its tiny oval body, reflective wings and orange-brown legs. Look out for them on flowering plants in meadows, parks and gardens.

Prevent flower bug bites: The common flower bug bite isn’t serious, but it’s very annoying. You could use insect repellent when gardening or, better still, cover your bare skin and wear gloves to stop them nipping. Flower bugs are great for the garden so don’t be tempted to use a general insecticide to get rid of them.

Midges and gnats

Midges (often also called gnats) are the scourge of trips to the Scottish Highlands and a common feature throughout the rest of the UK, especially on damp and cloudy summer days. Midge bites don’t transmit illness but they’re painful, itch intensely and can swell up alarmingly.

Prevent midge bites: Midges and gnats tend to attack in swarms, especially in hot weather, so use an insect repellent and cover-up at dawn and dusk. Protective gear, such as mesh covers for your face, can be very effective too.

Ladybirds

The harlequin ladybird is a recent invader to our shores, but in the space of just a few years has colonised much of the UK. They’re bigger, rounder and more aggressive than native ladybirds such as the two spot and seven spots. All ladybirds can nip, but harlequins seem to bite more than others.

How to spot it: The harlequin ladybird can be red or orange with multiple spots. Look out for a white spot on its head – native red ladybirds never have white patches.

Prevent ladybird bites: Wear gloves when gardening, but try not to intentionally kill harlequin ladybirds. It’s hard to selectively get rid of them without hurting native ladybirds, and all ladybirds are good for the garden.

Bedbugs

Bedbugs are a growing problem in the UK. They don’t carry disease, but their bites cause itchy red bumps. Some people have a serious skin reaction with blisters that can become infected.

What to do: If you think your home is infested with bedbugs (tiny black spots on your mattress and bed are a giveaway), get a pest control expert to treat it straight away. Don’t be embarrassed – bedbugs are not a sign of a dirty home. Read more about bedbugs.

Horseflies

A large, hairy fly whose bite can be extremely painful, the horsefly tends to bite on warm, sunny days, especially the head and upper body.

Prevent horsefly bites: The horsefly doesn’t spread disease, but as its bite cuts the skin rather than piercing it, horse fly bites are very painful, take longer to heal than other insect bites and can easily become infected, so cover up and use insect repellent. Read what to do if you have an infected insect bite.

Ants

Our most common ant, the black garden variety, doesn’t sting, but the UK has red, wood and flying ants that do, especially in warm weather or when threatened. You’ll feel a nip, but it’s all pretty harmless as ants have less toxin in their sting than wasps or bees. The only evidence you’ve been stung will probably be a pale pink mark.

Prevent ant stings: Use over-the-counter ant repellent.

Spiders

You may be surprised to know that a number of spiders in the UK are capable of giving a nasty nip – usually after rough handling or if they become trapped in your clothes. You can tell it’s a spider bite because it leaves little puncture marks. According to the Natural History Museum, false widow spiders, so-called because of their similarity to the more poisonous black widow spider, are the main culprits and typically give bites that cause pain, redness and swelling.

Prevent spider bites: Don’t disturb spiders if you can help it – they tend to bite you only when they feel threatened.

Manage your symptoms at home and make sure your bite or sting doesn’t get infected by using these bites and stings symptom checker.

Caterpillars

The caterpillars of an undistinctive brown moth, called the oak processionary moth, are a real pest. A recent immigrant to the UK, the caterpillars are found feeding on oak trees in the south and west London, Croydon, Bromley and parts of Berkshire. They move about the trees in late spring and summer in characteristic nose-to-tail processions … hence their name! Look out, too, for their white silken webbing nests and the white trails they leave on branches and trunks.

As well as devastating oak trees, whose branches they can strip bare, the caterpillars have thousands of tiny hairs that contain a toxin that can trigger itchy skin rashes, sore throats, breathing difficulties and eye problems on contact.

Prevent oak processionary moth problems: Don’t touch or approach the caterpillars or nests. And don’t attempt to move the nests yourself – call a pest control expert. Report any sightings to your local council or the Forestry Commission.

See a doctor if: you develop symptoms of a serious allergic reaction.

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