Culture

My Backyard Adventure with a 'Blinding, Shockingly Electric' Wasp Sting

My hand after getting stung by an unidentified flying insect.

Anyone interested in hearing a story about the worst bee sting of all time… or at least this year… at least in my town… okay, specifically in my yard?

No? Too bad, I’m going to tell you about it anyway. Because I’d love to hear some opinions about what did this too me.

Is there an entomologist in the house?

I say “bee” because that’s the generic go-to word for flying insects, but what got me was either a wasp or hornet. And it wasn’t any ordinary wasp or hornet.

The incident happened last month while I was clipping some weeds that were growing under our deck and coming through the lattice around my rose bushes. I didn’t get a good look at it because it happened so quickly, but the little beast stung me right on the thumb and suddenly I was reeling around in a world of hurt.

I don’t even remember dropping the clippers, but I did and ran up the stairs to the deck with first my thumb, then my entire hand throbbing in white-hot pain, which lingered for about 15 minutes. That didn’t feel like any wasp sting I’d ever experienced.

I’m no stranger to wasp stings. The paper wasp is the most common type of wasp in Missouri, according to the Missouri Department of Conservation, and I’ve been stung by one at least three times in the past 20 years.

A paper wasp sting has been rated the third most painful insect sting in the world, measuring a 3 on the Schmidt Sting Pain Index. University of Arizona entomologist Justin Schmidt has, based on his own self-sacrificing research,  ranked 78 insect species on a pain scale of 1 to 4. He describes the pain of a paper wasp sting as being “like spilling a beaker of hydrochloric acid on a paper cut.”

Yes, I can confirm that it hurts like a mother. (I’ve become somewhat of an expert on the subject of insect sting pain myself — not out of choice, believe me).

The first time I was stung by a wasp was about 20 years ago when I was reaching behind a bush in front of my house to turn on the hose. Yikes, that hurt like %&*$#. My in-laws were in town and I remember my father-in-law chewed out my husband for putting the hose in such a precarious spot.

Here is what my wrist looked like after a paper wasp stung me in the summer of 2015. There was some red inflammation and that was about it.

Here’s my thigh in the summer of 2017 after getting stung again. More redness and swelling — notable, but nothing too severe.

But this latest sting was in a whole ‘nother category.

Have you ever seen a surgical glove that has been blown up like a balloon? That is what my hand looked like after that little flying demon from hell stung me. I couldn’t make a fist because my hand was too swollen and there were oozing blisters starting to pop up. The nurse practitioner at urgent care said it was the worst reaction to an insect bite she’d ever seen.

In case you’re wondering, yes, I was given two shots — Benadryl and Prednisone — one in each butt cheek.  And I was given a prescription for more steroids and an antibiotic to take at home.

So what the #$%^& stung me?

I see a lot of bald-faced hornets around our house, but I don’t think I’ve ever been stung by one. They rank #7 on the most painful insect sting list, which doesn’t really square with my experience. “Rich, hearty, slightly crunchy. Similar to getting your hand mashed in a revolving door,” says Schmidt.

Yeah, okay — well, kinda …

Their venom is particularly toxic, which would explain my severe allergic reaction.

The venom is a complex mix of proteins that are capable of stimulating pain nerve receptors in a target organism. These proteins can also trigger inflammatory and even allergic reactions in the wasp’s target. Bald-faced hornets are also able to eject this venom from their ovipositors and can spray this toxic mixture into the faces (especially the eyes) of any nest predator that disturbs the colony.

I saw some of these things hanging around my vegetable garden today:

https://twitter.com/NiceDeb/status/1028039635212148737

I think they’re spider wasps. We have a lot of spiders out where we live. But common spider wasps don’t even rank in the top 15 of Schmidt’s Pain Index, so I’m thinking no.

Except there is one particular type of spider wasp …

It’s a long shot, but the tarantula hawk wasp is number two on the Schmidt pain index, second only to the “King of Stings,” the bullet ant.

Schmidt describes the sting as:  “Blinding, shockingly electric. A running hair drier has been dropped into your bubble bath.”

Yeah, that sounds about right.

He has a more detailed description here:

The advice I give in speaking engagements is to lie down and scream. The pain is so debilitating and excruciating that the victim is at risk of further injury by tripping in a hole or over an object in the path and then falling onto a cactus or into a barbed-wire fence. Such is the sting pain that almost nobody can maintain normal coordination or cognitive control to prevent accidental injury. Screaming is satisfying and helps reduce attention to the pain of the sting. Few, if any, people would be stung willingly by a tarantula hawk.

Oh man — he nailed it.

The species occur from Argentina northward to Logan, Utah, mostly in the Southwestern United States. But theoretically, I guess, it can be found wherever you find tarantulas. And there are tarantulas in Missouri. 

The question is, have I seen any tarantulas in our yard? Well, they’re nocturnal, hunting for insects at night, and spending their days inside their burrows. So I wouldn’t have much of an opportunity to see them, but I’ve seen plenty of scary-looking spiders over the years. Have I seen anything that looks exactly like a tarantula hawk wasp in my yard? Well, no. But I sure have felt something like it.