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Stinging insects: Biology and identification

Nancy L Breisch, PhD
Albert Greene, PhD
Section Editor
David B Golden, MD
Deputy Editor
Elizabeth TePas, MD, MS


The stinging Hymenoptera are taxonomically divided into three principal groups: ants, bees, and wasps. The majority of allergic reactions to stings are due to this order of insects. This topic reviews the biology and identification of the flying Hymenoptera that include bees, yellow jackets, hornets, and wasps. Avoidance of the flying Hymenoptera is discussed separately, as are fire ants, which are also members of the Hymenoptera order. (See "Stinging insects: Avoidance" and "Entomology and control of imported fire ants".)

Diagnosis and management of stinging insect allergy is discussed separately. (See "Bee, yellow jacket, wasp, and other Hymenoptera stings: Reaction types and acute management" and "Diagnosis of Hymenoptera venom allergy" and "Hymenoptera venom immunotherapy: Efficacy, indications, and mechanism of action" and "Stings of imported fire ants: Clinical manifestations, diagnosis, and treatment".)


Numerous misconceptions about Hymenoptera taxonomy, biology, stinging behavior, and sting avoidance are widespread throughout the clinical literature [1]. This is due partly to the repeated citation of references written by nonentomologists containing fundamental errors and partly to the extensive use of common names for these insects, such as "bee," "wasp," and "hornet." These informal expressions are often used imprecisely by clinicians, as well as the general public. However, biologists have long adhered to a set of specific meanings for the most frequently used insect common names, as well as a standardized peer review process to create new ones [2,3]. These familiar terms, when used correctly, can facilitate communication between clinicians and their patients.

This topic review will adhere to the well-established entomologic convention that calls the aculeus (ie, a modified ovipositor used as a venom-injection device) a "sting," although the colloquial term is "stinger" [4-6]. No male Hymenoptera can sting because the aculeus is a female organ.

The stinging Hymenoptera are taxonomically divided into three principal groups: ants, bees, and wasps. Only bees and wasps will be discussed here.

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Literature review current through: Oct 2017. | This topic last updated: Aug 10, 2017.
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