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Dangerous Insects of America

Cody Smith
January 18, 2013
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They’re in the grass, in the air, in the trees, and underground. They’re in the jungle, the prairie, the forest, the desert, and the mountains. They can reproduce thousands of offspring at a time, regenerate severed limbs, jump up to 100 times their body length, fly at speeds of over 30 mph, eat double their body weight in one day, and even change color. Insects are a part of our daily life, which isn’t surprising since they vastly outnumber us with an estimated 10 quintillion individuals alive at any given time, giving an insect-to-human ratio of approximately 200 million to one. Luckily for us, over 99% of insects aren’t harmful! In fact, most insects are a crucial part of the environment – providing food for other animals, helping decompose dead matter, pollinating the plants around us, aerating the soil, and countless other beneficial activities. Camping, hiking, kayaking, biking, and other outdoor activities generally put us in direct contact with insects, because when we go out of our home, we’re going into theirs.  For the most part, they’re very accommodating – we do what we want, and although sometimes they can be a nuisance, dangerous encounters are rare. But they do happen…

So, with spring on the way and recreation areas and campgrounds soon to be buzzing (no pun intended) with visitors, below is a list and brief description of some potentially dangerous insects in the United States that may be encountered while enjoying the great outdoors, along with basic information on treatment after a bite or sting.

 

SCORPIONS

ARIZONA BARK SCORPION

This is the only scorpion in the United States that is potentially dangerous to humans, and thankfully they’re only native to the Sonoran Desert, which is located in parts of Arizona and California. Adults are anywhere between 2 ¾ to 3 ¼ inches long, with a light tan to brown coloring. Bark scorpions like to hide under rocks, in wood piles, or under tree bark (hence their name) during the day, while at night they come out to actively hunt for prey. Strangely, bark scorpions actually prefer to be upside down, so this means many stings are from someone reaching under an object with their hand. A great way to detect scorpions of any kind is with an ultraviolet light, something I personally have done with success – unless they have molted within the past couple days, a scorpion will glow under UV light. A sting can cause severe pain, numbness, and tingling, although in severe cases temporary paralysis of the limb stung, muscle convulsions, and difficulty breathing can occur. Overall, the sting is compared to the sensation of electric shock. Only two fatalities have been recorded in Arizona since 1968, even though the annual number of stings is estimated to be in the thousands. A sting from an Arizona bark scorpion should not be taken lightly, though, especially with children or the elderly, and medical attention should be sought immediately in either of these cases or for someone who shows signs of being allergic. If stung, it should be cleaned with soap and water, a cool compress applied, and acetaminophen or ibuprofen can be taken to relieve the symptoms. Antivenom is available, as well, and should be given to children or severe cases in which it is necessary.

 

SPIDERS

BLACK WIDOW

These are one of the most recognizable, and most feared, of any insect – and they do inhabit the entire United States. The females usually measure between ½ to 1 ½ inches in length, are a glossy black color, and can have their signature red marking on either the top or the bottom of the abdomen or none at all. Their venom is strong enough to drop a camel, but human deaths are fairly rare, with about seven in the United States every year attributed to possible black widow bites – such as the Colorado resident who died after being bitten 19 times on the foot in 2011. Black widows are not aggressive, so most bites are caused by accidental encounters in places like wood piles, trash dumps, sheds, gardens, and under rocks, or if they get trapped in a sock or shoe. If someone gets bitten, it can take over 30 minutes for symptoms to take effect. Watch for redness and swelling, an overall “achy” feeling, weakness, vomiting, headache, and nausea. As soon as you or someone else thinks they may have been bit wash the bite with soap and water, elevate the area, keep still, and seek medical attention as soon as possible. Black widow antivenom is very beneficial, although it can make you immune to rattlesnake antivenom, which is something to discuss with the doctor if you have a likely chance of being bit by a rattlesnake (hike frequently in rattlesnake country, handle rattlesnakes, etc.).

 

BROWN RECLUSE

A brown recluse, usually measuring ¼ to ¾ inches, is more difficult to identify since it has no certain markings on the body, although they sometimes have a violin pattern, which cellar spiders and pirate spiders can also have. A good way to identify them is by their eyes – instead of eight, they only have six eyes paired in sets, which really gives the appearance of three eyes without close observation. They also appear to have fuzzy legs because of the fine hairs that grow along them. They tend to like the same living quarters as black widows, although unlike most web building spiders, they will leave their webs at night to actively hunt for food. Their range is from Texas to western Georgia and from Louisiana to southern Iowa. An occasional brown recluse has been found outside this area, but can usually be explained by recent travels to their known range. The name fits it well, as these spiders are not aggressive and tend to only bite if trapped in clothing, gloves, or bedding. A good example is the removal of 2,055 brown recluse spiders from a house in Kansas, home to a family of four – they had never been bitten. In the rare circumstance where someone does get bit, it usually isn’t even felt initially. Pain and itching can follow within 2-8 hours, pain worsens over the next 36 hours, and a visible wound will develop within a few days. An ice pack should be applied as soon as possible, and seek medical attention immediately as there are several treatments that have been fairly successful. Although a brown recluse bite is generally not as dangerous as a black widow, there are rare instances where extremely severe side effects can occur, which may be fatal if left untreated.

 

TARANTULAS

With their stinging hairs, large fangs, heavy bodies, and occasionally measuring up to six inches across, tarantulas are intimidating to say the least. Their range spreads from California to the Mississippi River and from Texas to Missouri, although much larger and more aggressive species exist in other parts of the world. They do not build webs, and generally do not actively hunt for food, but instead prefer to wait near the entrance of their burrow for a small insect to come near enough for a surprise attack. Tarantulas native to America are relatively forgiving, and will only bite someone as a last resort, usually rearing up on their hind legs, slapping their attacker with the front legs, flicking off some of the barbed stinging hairs located on their abdomen, attempting to flee, and then biting, although sometimes even then they will dry bite and not actually inject any venom. There are no known tarantulas that are deadly to humans – their bite is compared to a wasp or bee sting. But, as with all biting and stinging insects, there are those who may have an allergic reaction, and in this case medical attention should be sought immediately. If symptoms other than a stinging sensation (which may last for a couple days) occur, such as difficulty breathing or swelling of the throat and mouth, this is evidence of an allergic reaction, which can be fatal if untreated. The stinging hairs, known as urticating hairs, located on their abdomen, while fatal to some small mammals, generally only cause itching or a rash. But extreme caution should be taken to avoid getting these hairs into the eyes or respiratory system, as they have been known to cause permanent eye damage and if lodged in the nasal passages or lungs can be extremely painful.

 

WASPS

As there are over 100,000 species of wasps, a discussion of their various characteristics and behavior is way beyond the scope of this article. I will mention several that are worth keeping an eye out for, though – including yellow jackets, hornets, paper wasps, and Asian giant hornets.

Paper wasps get their name for the umbrella shaped paper nest they build, often on the underside of limbs, roof eaves, in sheds, vehicle fenders, and almost any protected location with somewhere to secure the nest to. They can have yellow stripes like a yellow jacket, but tend to be slightly larger (½ to 1 inches in length) and have a more brownish overall coloring. They are the least aggressive out of the wasps listed, and will only attack if threatened.

Hornets usually make paper nests, as well, but are more aggressive than paper wasps and can also get larger (1-2 inches in length). Hornets are very attracted to water and food, especially sugary items such as soda and fruit, and will often be seen during the summer hovering around picnic tables or water spigots.

Yellow jackets have a distinct yellow and black pattern, and measure around ¾ inches in length. They tend to build their nests underground, which can cause stings on the feet for those who like to go barefoot or wear sandals, but they will make nests in walls or roof eaves occasionally.

Asian giant hornets are considered by some to be one of the most dangerous insects on earth, and are native to eastern Asia. Only a few stings are enough to kill a human, they can fly over 25 mph, 30-50 will wipe out a hive of tens of thousands of honey bees, and can spray a type of acid at their victims eyes. They have enormous heads (for a wasp), measure about two inches long, and have a three inch wingspan. So, why is it on this list? Asian giant hornets have been reportedly sighted in Illinois, Maryland, Ohio, and Pennsylvania – one was even killed and photographed on a bee farm (Asian giant hornets actively hunt bees) in Maryland by the owner. If these extremely dangerous hornets are in fact beginning to invade the northeast United States, possibly by hitching a ride on shipped products from eastern Asia, as they are thought to have done in France, it would be a good idea to get educated.

Although only the Asian giant hornet has a deadly sting (over 40 people die in Japan every year from Asian giant hornets), any wasp sting can be fatal if the victim is allergic. Pain, redness, and a small welt are usually caused by any wasp sting – but if intense swelling and difficulty breathing occur, it’s time to get to a hospital fast. For stings that do not require hospitalization, a paste of baking soda and water can be mixed and applied to the sting, which will relieve pain and can then be washed off. Any of the above wasps emit a pheromone when stinging or after being smashed that will alert any others nearby and draw them to the location to attack – this is especially dangerous with a wasp such as the Asian giant hornet.

 

BEES

Africanized honey bees are the only consistently dangerous bee in the United States, earning the name “killer bees” by many. Since their accidental release by a Brazilian beekeeper in 1957, they have spread as far as Texas, Georgia, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Florida, Arkansas, Louisiana, Utah, and California. Unlike their cousins, the European honey bee, these Africanized honey bees are much more aggressive. As a swarm, they will chase someone over a mile and attack within a quarter mile of their hive (which can be underground). They’re sting actually has the same potency as a European honey bee, but since they attack in such larger numbers, this makes them much more dangerous. One to two deaths per year are usually credited to “killer bees – as recent as July, 2012, an Arizona resident was killed by a swarm in a Tucson city park. Of course, to someone who is allergic to the sting, any bee can be deadly. After being stung, if dizziness, difficulty breathing, or swelling of the throat and mouth occurs, this is evidence of an allergic reaction and medical attention should be sought immediately. If you’re stung on the hand, it’s a good idea to remove anything such as a ring or watch, so that further pain and damage isn’t done by them if the sting area begins to swell. Within about 30 seconds of being stung, the stinger should be removed by scraping using a credit card or something similar. Do not squeeze the stinger, using tweezers or fingers, to remove it as this will cause the rest of the venom stored inside the stinger to be released. If you happen to run into a nest of Africanized bees, don’t make any sudden movements, keep animals away, and avoid waving around jewelry or other flashy objects. On the other hand, if the bees begin to attack, RUN. Try to protect your face from being stung, run into the wind, and head towards the nearest shelter such as a house or tent – don’t jump in water, since the bees will wait for you to resurface. If you or someone else has been stung more than 15 times, seek medical attention.

 

ANTS

Two kinds of ants to beware of in the United States are red harvester ants and fire ants (or red ants). Both are mainly found in southern and southwestern states, although fire ants are actually an invasive species that were accidentally brought aboard a South American cargo ship to Alabama in the 1930s. Both can build massive underground nests, with visible mounds on the surface reaching up to 15 inches high and over five feet across. Although it may appear that the ant bite is what causes the pain, it’s actually only to keep a firm grip while they sting with a small wasp-like stinger on their abdomen – and believe me, fire ants aren’t named for their color! Ants are sort of like flightless hornets, and will swarm and attack if their nest is threatened, which can be painful for anyone standing in close proximity. People have even been known to be stung while swimming, probably by a fire ant that fell in the water and hitched a ride on the passing swimmer. As with the other insects we’ve discussed, these ants are especially dangerous to someone with an allergic reaction – in 2008 an elderly man, allergic to the stings, died when a colony of fire ants washed into his home after tropical storm Fay. External treatments for ant bites include hydrocortisone cream and aloe vera gel, or Benadryl for internal use. Although bites can be painful and itchy, scratching can cause infection and scarring. If difficulty breathing, chest pain, sweating, swelling, and/or slurred speech occur, it’s time to seek medical attention immediately as this can be fatal.

 

CENTIPEDES

Growing up to 12 inches long, with 30+ legs capable of piercing skin, and two venom injecting fangs up front gives this creature an understandable reputation. And although I must admit it is frightening to run into, much more than a honey bee or wasp, the sting (which is really more like a bite) is actually very similar. Their range extends across most of the southern United States, but they may be found as far north as southern Missouri. I personally captured a six inch Texas redheaded centipede near Eagle Rock, Missouri, running so fast it appeared to be a snake, across a gravel driveway. There are several species of dangerous centipedes in the United States, including the Texas redheaded centipede, poisonous black centipede, and giant desert centipede, which all vary in appearance, size, and range. Centipedes in general are incredible predators and can take down lizards, snakes, rodents, and even birds that are much larger than themselves, due to their vice-like grip and venom. The bite of a centipede is similar to a bee sting in the sense that it can be painful for up to two days, but death tends to occur only in children or those who are allergic. If you or someone else has been bitten and is known to be allergic, begins to have symptoms such as difficulty breathing or excessive swelling, or in cases involving children, seek medical attention immediately.

 

SUMMARY

There are obviously more potentially dangerous insects that are not covered in this article, such as ticks, mosquitoes, flies, and other species of spiders, scorpions, ants, centipedes, and wasps that may also be dangerous or deadly under certain circumstances. The insects listed above are simply some of the most well known species that tend to be the most aggressive and/or dangerous in the United States. The goal of this article, though, is not to promote fear of insects, but to promote knowledge and understanding of them. Knowing what we’re looking at when we find that wasp or spider in the RV, boat, or tent, can make the difference between unnecessary fear and justified judgment or even escape.

No, a discussion on dangerous insects is not something most people want to read when planning a camping trip or outing, but it’s absolutely necessary if we want to stay safe while we’re exploring in their habitat. And since we are outnumbered 200 million to one, I’d say we should probably stay on their good side…

 

 

(Note: The descriptions, procedures, and all information within this article are for basic research/informational purposes only. Although all content is accurate to the extent of my research and knowledge, any of the information is subject to change with further studies by the scientific community and health organizations. YOU are responsible for your own safety, identification of insects, treatment procedures taken, etc.)

Cited and Associated References:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_widow_spider

http://kidshealth.org/kid/ill_injure/bugs/black_widow.html

http://www.foxnews.com/scitech/2011/07/22/man-possibly-killed-by-1-black-widow-spider-bites/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brown_recluse_spider

http://newsroom.ucr.edu/304

http://aphonopelma.wordpress.com/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aphonopelma

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tarantula

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arizona_bark_scorpion

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wasps

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paper_wasps

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hornets

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yellow_jackets

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Giant_Asian_Hornet

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Africanized_bee

http://www.kgun9.com/news/125533738.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/European_honey_bee

http://www.wikihow.com/Treat-a-Wasp-or-Hornet-Sting

http://bee-zen.blogspot.com/2012/05/asian-giant-hornetsin-america.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Centipedes

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fire_ants

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_harvester_ant

http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,412881,00.html

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