Nothing ruins a perfectly gorgeous day outdoors like a painful bee or wasp sting. Receiving even one sting hurts, and if you’re allergic to bee or wasp venom, it could lead to anaphylaxis, a life-threatening medical emergency. So, yeah, no one wants to wind up on the business end of a bee or wasp—but how do you actually avoid it?
This might surprise you, but bees and wasps aren’t typically aggressive, the Mayo Clinic explains. “Stinging is a defensive reaction,” Robert J. Whitworth, Ph.D., an associate professor of entomology at Kansas State University, tells SELF. “If you’re outside and you’re in the area where they are, try not to alarm them or make them think that you’re a threat. They don’t really want to sting you, they just want to go about their business.”
1. If a bee or wasp lands on you, don’t make any sudden movements.
Easier said than done, we know. But a bee or wasp may perceive you as dangerous if you’re running around and waving your arms. “Whatever you do, do not do any quick movements to make it feel threatened,” Whitworth says. That includes swatting at it, which is a completely valid instinct that might get you stung in return, David R. Tarpy, Ph.D., an entomologist, honeybee researcher, and professor at NC State University, tells SELF.
If a bee or wasp lands on you and you just can’t sit still (fair), you can try gently brushing it off, Tarpy says. You may have more luck with bees, which tend to be harder to provoke than wasps. How can you tell the difference? Although there are many species of bees and wasps, in general bees have a fine layer of hair and are rounder than wasps, which are smooth, have narrow midsections, and have pointier ends. They just look mean and like they’d love to make you cry, basically.
No matter how light-as-a-feather you brush off the insect, you run the risk of aggravating it. It’s really best to remind yourself that the bee or wasp is not out to get you and let it move along on its own if you can.
2. Avoid bees and wasps that seem to be making, well, beelines through the air.
If you see bees and wasps hopping from flower to flower, they’re probably trying to find food and pretty much don’t care about you, Tarpy says: “When they’re out foraging, just leave them alone and they’ll leave you alone.”
But if you happen to notice that a bee or wasp is flying in a straight, purposeful line, the odds are pretty solid that there’s a nest or hive around. These insects tend to fly directly in and out when they’re near their home base, Tarpy says, which is when you want to avoid them at all costs. “When you get too close to the nest [or hive], they defend it aggressively,” Howard Russell, M.S., an entomologist at Michigan State University, tells SELF.
If you can actually spot the nest or hive, head the other way or give it a very wide berth. You’ve probably seen beehives, but as a reminder, they generally look like honeycombs made of tiny hexagons. In the wild, they are often in hollowed out trees or other cavities, Tarpy says, although sometimes they’re in the ground or other areas. Wasp nests tend to look papery and either like large upside-down cones or with open hexagonal sections, like beehives. Wasps set up shop pretty much anywhere, including hanging from tree branches, in the ground, and in logs or stumps, Tarpy says.
All of this means that sometimes a hive or nest is obscured instead of out in the open. Keep an eye out for any determined bees or wasps flying through the air even if you can’t spot their humble abodes.
3. Avoid wearing fruity or floral fragrances.
Bees are drawn to nectar, the sweet plant secretion they use to produce honey. Bees and wasps also both feed on nectar. This is why it’s probably best to take a pass on wearing a floral or fruity fragrance when you know you’re going to be outside near stinging insects.
“Bees and wasps have a fantastic sense of smell,” Tarpy says. “Perfumes, deodorants, and hair sprays can be a stimulus, and they may think you’re a big, giant flower.” Flattering? Yes. Ideal for avoiding stings? Nope. It’s not like a bee or wasp will sting you just because you smell nice, but wearing scents they like definitely increases the odds they’ll buzz around you.
4. Wear muted tones instead of bright ones.
If the animal kingdom had eye doctors, bees and wasps would constantly camp out in the waiting room. “Usually when they’re buzzing around it’s because they have such poor eyesight that it’s not immediately obvious to them that you’re not a flower or food resource,” Tarpy says. So, if you’re wearing a flowery shirt or something bright, they may need to get closer to figure out that you’re actually not a plant. (This is kind of endearing?)
5. Pour canned or bottled beverages into wide cups so you can see if an insect is swimming in your drink.
Bees and wasps may want to explore your drink containers, especially if the stuff inside them is sweet. “They can crawl right into the opening and, if you drink it, you’re likely to get stung,” Russell says.
This is why the Mayo Clinic recommends drinking from wide, open cups so you can see what’s in your drink. No matter what you’re drinking from, make sure to give it a quick peek for the all clear before taking a sip.
6. Put away any food you’re not eating and dispose of trash quickly.
Fun fact from Tarpy: Wasps can eat meat. That usually means they’ll snack on caterpillars and other insects, but they may also investigate any meat that’s sitting out, including fried chicken and bacon. Relatable. Fruit and other sweet items can also attract wasps and bees, Russell says. If a bee or wasp is about to go to town on a piece of pineapple and you pick it up, they’re not going to appreciate it and might lash out at you. Again, relatable.
To avoid this prospect, it’s best to tightly cover any food you’re not eating and clear away garbage when you’re done with it, the Mayo Clinic says.
7. Wear close-toed shoes to protect your feet.
If you really want to walk through a grassy meadow barefoot and there don’t seem to be any flowers around, you can chance it, Tarpy says. But if you want to make sure you won’t step on a bee or wasp barefoot, it’s best to wear close-toed shoes, according to the Mayo Clinic.
If you get stung despite doing all this due diligence, here’s how to make the pain recede as quickly as possible.
Bees can only sting you once but, when one does, it releases a chemical that attracts other bees, the Mayo Clinic says. We thought these were bees, not lemmings, but…OK. If you happen to get stung, cover your nose and mouth (so nothing can fly in there) and quickly leave the area. Wasps can sting you repeatedly, so you really want to try to get away from them and into a building or closed vehicle as quickly as possible, Tarpy says.
Once you’re safe, try to remove any stingers as soon as you can to reduce how much venom gets into your body, the Mayo Clinic says. (Bees leave their stingers in your skin; wasps generally don’t.) You can try this with your fingernails (don’t really dig into your skin and injure yourself), but it may be safer to scrape it off with a dull object so you don’t accidentally squeeze the stinger and inject more venom into your system. Then, wash the area with soap and water.
Even if you get the stinger out quickly, it’s normal to experience mild symptoms like sharp pain, a welt, and swelling, all of which should abate in a few hours, according to the Mayo Clinic. Or you might deal with more extreme redness and swelling that get more intense over the next day or two, but disappear within five to 10 days.
In either case, you can apply a cold compress to target inflammation. If you’re in pain or dealing with a lot of swelling and itching along with your sting, an over-the-counter pain reliever like ibuprofen may help, the Mayo Clinic says. So can applying a hydrocortisone cream or calamine lotion (to ease inflammation and irritation) and taking an oral antihistamine (to combat your body’s release of histamine, the chemical involved in allergic reactions). If you happen to have a first-aid kit with any post-sting swabs, you can definitely try those, too. They often have topical antihistamines or numbing agents to combat sting symptoms.
Finally, if you know you have a severe allergy to bee or wasp venom, you may need to use epinephrine autoinjector like an EpiPen and seek immediate medical care. Same goes if you weren’t aware your body would have a strong reaction to the venom, but you start to experience serious symptoms like hives, difficulty breathing, and nausea. Those are signs of anaphylaxis, meaning you need to get emergency treatment as soon as possible.