Can you guess which of Australia’s many venomous animal species is the most threatening to humans? If you guessed snakes, then you’d be off the mark. If you guessed spiders, then you’d be close; the culprit is also an invertebrate and similar in size.
The correct answer to this question is bees and wasps. According to a study on envenomation conducted by the University of Melbourne’s Australian venom unit—a work that spanned 13 years and analyzed almost 42,000 hospital admissions—a solid 33% of the victims were admitted for bee or wasp stings. These stings accounted for more than twice the number of hospital admissions for snake bites, and caused almost the same number of deaths.
This is to say that insect bites are no laughing matter, especially if they can trigger deadly allergies. The Journal of Asthma and Allergy estimates that 5% to 7.5% of people will incur a severe allergic reaction to an insect sting in their lifetime. The reaction is known familiarly as anaphylaxis, an allergic response to an antigen that can cause the body to flood its own immune system with chemicals and go into a state of anaphylactic shock.
Today, the spotlight is on the European wasp, an invasive species and pest in Australia whose presence is felt the most in the autumn season. In this feature, we’ll look into the following subject matters: the European wasp’s physical characteristics and behaviours; the risks arising from their stings; advice on how to identify and treat symptoms of stings; and further suggestions for careful intervention, such as contacting wildlife or pest control experts and enrolling in first aid training for anaphylaxis management. Read on for the “buzz” on all things related to the European wasp.
Fast Facts on the European Wasp
The European wasp, whose scientific name is Vespula germanica, is native to areas in the northern hemisphere, such as the United Kingdom, northern Europe, and northern Africa. This species arrived in the Australasian region via trans-oceanic freight activities and settled in New Zealand in 1945 before nesting in Tasmania in 1959. By the 1970s, the European wasp had thrived in Australian conditions enough to become a full-fledged pest in the country.
These wasps are not to be mistaken for their lookalikes, particularly the paper wasps. One can identify the European wasp by its distinctive anatomical features, as well as some notable behaviours. This species stands out for its long black antennae, stout body, yellow-and-black banded abdomen, double set of clear wings (with the first pair being larger than the second), and its tendency to fly with its legs raised and close to the body.
European wasps come out of hiding in the fall, as this is the season when the queen wasp and her workers emerge for hibernation and seek out new nesting grounds. The nests themselves are tricky territory, as they can be built underground, inside logs or trees, in a structure’s walls, or inside the ceiling—and the only entryways to such nests are small entrance holes. Unbeknown to many, a single nest can host a population of between 3,000 and 10,000 workers (the size of a soccer ball or bigger). These nests typically reach full size during the months of March and April.
European wasps prove a threat because they like to establish their nests in areas occupied by humans. They like to chew cavities in the wood of both outdoor and indoor structures, and they are especially attracted to meaty and sugary foods. Examples of such items are exposed meat dishes on plates or on the barbecue grill, compostable garbage, fruit ripening on fruit trees, pet food, and so on. Worse yet, they are quite aggressive when disturbed, and unlike bees, wasps can sting a pertson several times without dying.
What Symptoms Will You Incur after a Wasp Sting, and How Do You Treat Them?
Wasps, bees, and yellow jackets all carry the same family of venom called apitoxin. If you’re stung, this venom can cause a burning sensation and a swelling pain on your skin. These pains may increase depending on the number of times that you are stung, your general health disposition, and whether you have an allergy to the venom (being stung is an unpleasant way to find out).
If there’s evidence of an allergic reaction, or if the victim has been stung in a vital area like the neck or the head, it’s best to call Triple Zero (000) or to take them to the nearest emergency room. In the absence of medical personnel, someone who is witness to the situation can apply proper first aid. They can administer the swallowing of an antihistamine, an epinephrine injection, or cold compress while help is on the way.
Prevention is Still Better than Cure
Armed with the knowledge that it’s wasp season, what should be your next move? What are the best ways to prepare for an envenomation incident—and to protect your family from this species? Here are some helpful tips:
This concludes our brief backgrounder on European wasps, sting treatment, and preventive action. May you have a safe and prosperous autumn!
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