Worldwide, there are an estimated 9,000 species of ants, 20,000 species of bees, and 800 species of stinging wasps. Again, those of medical risk are social, existing in colonies consisting of numerous females known as "workers" that defend by stinging. In the U.S., social Hymenoptera include all 700 or so species of ants, but only about 35 species of bees, and about 30 species of wasps.
As a biology major and world traveler bugs have been a continuous, creepy and curious part of my life. Any person with a little common sense knows it is important to be aware of the various biting bugs and stinging insects a person may face in different countries. I had a serious bout with tick fever in college in Texas so biting bugs are a serious concern for me when I travel. Since my first trip to Belize in 2011 I have experienced, heard about and witnessed many different biting bugs as part of my ongoing research and reporting on my blog and website. Recently it was time to dive deep and do a diligent discovery of the biting bugs in Belize.
Be prepared to prevent bug bites or be prepared to suffer the painful possible consequences after being bitten.
People who travel to Belize will benefit from knowing the information provided in this blog post and sharing it with family and friends. After many weeks of personal experience and many days of research this summary offers a wealth of health education and information before you travel to Belize or any country for that matter. Be prepared to prevent bug bites or be prepared to suffer the painful possible consequences after being bitten. Most people are aware an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Disease, infections and treatments after being bitten by bugs can be very expensive and traumatic.
Beware Belize Biting Bugs
Residents, travelers and tourists may have a keen interest in knowing more about the biting bugs in Belize. After fourteen trips to Belize there are a number of both bummer and beneficial educational experiences and lessons learned to share. Like most countries in the world there are a wide variety of arthropods, bugs, insects and spiders in Belize. A little bit of knowledge and prior proper planning can help prevent the vast majority of painful and perplexing situations dealing with biting bugs. Just to be clear it is not just the biting bugs one must be concerned about but also the ones that sting. Many insects in Belize bite you in order to find a tasty tourist treat while others may simply sting you as a self defense mechanism.
Biting Bugs in Belize
There are a wide variety of biting bugs in Belize to be aware of if your health, safety and environment are important.
Army Ants are known to bite with their strong jaws.
Army Ants are known to bite with their strong jaws. This can cause some skin discomfort but also allows them to hold on while they sting you. The sting is much worse than the bite and can fester into a pustule. If scratched they can allow bacteria to enter the wound and become infected. They travel in very large numbers so if you see them be sure to stay clear. They are know to be aggressive and kill other insects and even small animals, birds, frogs and lizards.
Bed bugs typically bite at night to get a blood meal while you are sleeping. They can survive and even thrive in wooden beds, floors and furniture. Travelers often unknowingly carry them to new destinations in their clothing, backpack and suitcase.
Bot Fly do not bite humans. Instead the egg is transported by another biting insect like a mosquito and an egg is deposited this way. The larva can then grow in the body of host. Females can also deposit their eggs directly on a host. The Bot fly eggs can hatch and larvae can enter a natural body opening or penetrate the skin if allowed to reside after hatching.
Botlass Fly also called bad-ass fly or black fly bite and leave a small signature dot of dried blood at the bite site. These are a major nuisance and often lead to itching and rash. Scratching the bite site can lead to infections and serious scarring.
Centipedes use a pair of hollow legs, adapted with claws, to bite into the skin. Their pincer type poison claws are found under the first body segment and can cause small puncture wounds and blisters when the centipede crawls across the skin. A centipede bites and injects venom stored in internal glands into victims.
Doctor Fly are yellow and have a very painful bite. Usually the Doctor fly is out when the sun is out and when it is warm. They can be persistent and will follow you until they get a bite to eat. Often they can land and bite before you realize they are there. The arms, head and legs are particularly vulnerable when exposed during outdoor activities near trees and vegetation.
Chiggers also called harvest mites or red bugs are very small and are not usually seen without magnification. Typically the crawl on you for a while until they find a thin layer of skin to bite to feed. Then later it shows up as itching and rash around 12 or 24 hours later. They like to bite the ankles around the sock, the waistband of your clothes or your armpit. Chiggers don’t really bite in the traditional sense. They actually attach themselves to our skin, inject digestive enzymes in their saliva which helps break down skin cells. Then the chigger drinks this liquid which results. The enzymes cause the itchy rash later.
Fire ants commonly attack the ankles, feet, hands and legs when disturbed. They can grab with their jaws and sting you to inject a venom. Often when the ant mound is disturbed you can be stung by hundreds of fire ants if you do not react quickly enough. While there mounds are usually quite visible it is easy to not see one that is covered in grass or weeds.
Gnats – There are six species that travel up to ten miles to get a blood meal from animals or humans. Of the biting gnat species Buffalo gnats are most common. Gnats don’t pierce the skin like a mosquito. Gnats have four cutters inside their mouth and cut the skin and inject an anti-clotting agent to prevent the wound from forming a blood clot so they can feed. A gnat can freely suck blood and their bite is often more painful than mosquito bites.
Horse fly bites often occurs to people around the world. A member of the Tabanidae family there are over 3000 varieties of horseflies around the world. The three most common of these species are black horsefly, green-head horsefly and stripped horsefly. Horseflies breed and dwell on marshy or wet areas near bodies of water. They are extremely active during warm sunny conditions. Female horseflies feed on the blood of animals and humans. Male horsefly feed on nectar and pollen. A horsefly bite can be painful and lead to infections.
Kissing Bug (Triatoma Dimidiata) transmits Chagas Disease can be very serious.
Kissing Bug (Triatoma Dimidiata) transmits Chagas Disease can be very serious. This disease is transmitted as the bug feeds on blood. Here is a link for more information about and a picture of the kissing bug.
Leaf cutter ants have a very painful bite so stay clear of their trails and watch with caution. If you want to see leaf cutter ants in action and how hard they can bite watch this Youtube video with Coyote Peterson.
Midget is the common name for a very aggressive and annoying pest species. Other names include: black flies, gnats, moose flies, no-see-ums, pinyon gnats, punkies. A Purdue University report shares biting midges are flies (Order Diptera) in the family Ceratopogonidae, which includes over 4, 000 species in 78 genera worldwide. Species in only four genera of biting midges feed on the blood of mammals. The genera of greatest importance to animal and human health in the U.S. are Culicoides, Leptoconops, and Forcipomyia.
Mosquitoes are small midge-like flies that constitute the family Culicidae. Female mosquitoes bite animals and humans to feed and are considered ecto-parasites. They have tube like mouth parts called a proboscis that pierces the skin of a host to feed on blood. Mosquito is the Spanish word for a little fly. Mosquitoes can transmit parasites and viruses that cause diseases like Dengue Fever, Equine encephalitis, Malaria, West Nile, Zika and more.
Sand fly: There are an estimated to be 600 species of phlebotomine (sand flies) in the world, including 14 species in the U. S. Only one of these species bites humans.
Sand fleas: as the name implies are typically found at the beach on the sand.
Spiders are venomous because that is how they hunt and kill prey. Most people think spiders are too small or their venom too weak to be dangerous to humans. This is a big mistake. Black widow and brown recluse spiders are often considered the most venomous. Although other countries also have a widow spider called the redback spider.
Ticks are small spider like arachnids that bite to fasten themselves onto skin and feed on the blood of animals and humans. Ticks live in the feathers and fur of many birds and animals. While some websites say, “Most ticks do not carry diseases, and most don’t cause serious health problems,” every tick bite should be taken very seriously due to the potential risks involved. It is vitally important to remove a tick as soon as you find it. Removing the head and tick body can help you avoid diseases the tick may pass on to you. Even after removing a tick there is the risk of an infection in the skin where it bit you. Lyme disease is a serious risk that seems to be spreading to many areas.
Stinging Insects in Belize
Army ants and Fire ants are a serious concern in Belize due to the large number of stings that can occur from a disturbed mound and the potent venom they inject. The more ants that sting you the worse the problems you may face.
Asps are typically stinging caterpillars belong to the insect family known as flannel moths. Flannel moths get their name from the flannel-like appearance of the wings of the adult. The immature stages are caterpillars which are clothed with fine hairs and venomous spines. When brushed against the skin the spines produce a painful rash or sting. Best known as asp, puss mouth caterpillar or stinging caterpillar. See the story Pain in the Asp for more details.
Bees are plentiful in Belize and like other parts of the world a present a potential painful pest if disturbed.
Bees are plentiful in Belize and like other parts of the world a present a potential painful pest if disturbed. Unfortunately in Belize the aggressive African wild bees known as killer bees are firmly established. When disturbed these African wild bees become very aggressive and attack and can even follow you to pursue the attack. It can take some fast action on your part to escape and evade these aggressive bees if the hive is disturbed.
Scorpions are a member of the Arachnida class and are closely related to mites, spiders and ticks. Scorpions have two pincers, 8 legs and an elongated body with a tail composed of segments. The last tail segment contains the stinger that transmits a toxin to the site of the sting. Although about 2000 species exist most scorpions are harmless and only about 25-40 species can deliver enough venom to cause serious damage to humans.
Wasps can cause a very painful sting. Unfortunately wasps can sting you more than once since their defensive stinger is not barbed so it can inject venom more than once.
Here is some great information from Purdue University
ANTS: Nearly all species can sting, but relatively very few are a medical risk. Ants of greatest medical risk in the U.S. are the so-called "fire ants," all of which are limited to southern, southwestern, and western states. Fire ants can be very common in certain habitats and their colonies typically consist of many thousands of workers. The workers will deliver a sting that produces an intense burning sensation if their colony is disturbed. Allergic reactions are reported in an estimated 1% of individuals who are stung.
Visitors to the southwestern U.S. should be aware that desert ants known as "harvester ants" inflict stings that are extremely painful (likened to turning a screw into the flesh) and the pain can last for several hours. There are no reports of allergic reactions to stings of these ants, however.
A worker honey bee, Apis mellifera Photo by: Derrick Ditchburn
SOCIAL BEES: The social bee of greatest medical risk in the U.S. is the honey bee, Apis mellifera. Honey bees exist in colonies that consist of many thousands of workers associated with a nest. The nest consists of wax formed into structures known as "honey combs" in which larvae are reared. Honey bees are a medical risk because they can be very common even in urban areas, people commonly come in contact with them, colonies can consist of many thousands of workers, workers sting if their colony is disturbed, and their venom contains several chemicals involved in allergic reactions.
NOTE: The Africanized honey bee or the so-called "killer bee" is found in parts of the southern, southwestern, and western U.S., but does not occur in Indiana. It is nearly identical to "normal" honey bees in appearance and in the composition and effects of its venom. In other words, Africanized honey bee venom is not more "toxic" or prone to cause allergic reactions. The most important aspect of medical risk is directly associated with behavior. In short, Africanized honey bees are much more prone to defend their colony and the amount and duration of stinging is much greater.
Bumble bees also are social, and about 30 species exist in the U.S. None are considered a significant medical risk. Colonies typically are built in the ground in association with abandoned rodent nests and people rarely come in contact with them. Colonies of many species of bumble bees contain fewer than a hundred workers and workers are much less prone to sting than are honey bee workers. Relatively very little has been reported on the chemistry of bumble bee venoms, but they share at least some allergens with honey bee venom and have been associated with allergic reactions.
SOCIAL WASPS: The social wasps are of greatest medical risk (equal to honey bees and for many of the same reasons) throughout the U.S. are the yellowjackets, and to a lesser extent the hornets. Both groups exist in colonies that consist of hundreds to several thousand workers associated with a nest made of papery material. Yellowjacket and hornet larvae are reared in cells formed into multiple combs that are fully enclosed within a thick papery envelope. Paper wasps, or umbrella wasps, are significant medical risks primarily in the southern and southwestern U.S. However, the relatively recent establishment of a European species, Polistes dominulus, over much of the northern U.S. may change this situation because this species is increasingly common in urban areas and workers are more prone than native species to sting in defense if their colony is disturbed. The common names paper wasp and umbrella wasp are descriptive because the papery nest consists of a single comb that is not enclosed within an envelope and nests usually resemble an umbrella in shape when they are suspended from eaves of a building. Their colonies are much smaller that those of yellowjackets and hornets, usually containing fewer than a hundred workers.
Yellowjacket ground nest, Vespula pensylvanica Photo by: Roger Akre, Washington State University
European paper wasp, Polistes dominulus Photo by: Unkown Author
Solitary Bees and Wasps
The vast majority of species of bees and wasps are not social insects and are not a medical risk. They are considered "solitary," and include numerous very common examples such as carpenter bees, the cicada killer, mud daubers, and spider wasps. Solitary bees and solitary wasps do not exist in colonies consisting of numerous workers, almost never sting in defense of their nest, and their venoms cause nothing more than burning pain that persists for a minute or two.
What Should I Know About the Stinging Behavior of Social Hymenoptera?
Workers of social Hymenoptera are females that possess a structure known as an "ovipositor," which in most female insects is involved in laying eggs. However, the ovipositor of ants, bees, and wasps is modified to deliver a sting and is not involved in laying eggs. Known as a "sting" or "stinger," it functions as a hypodermic needle through which venom is injected into animals that disturb the colony. Male ants, wasps, and bees lack an ovipositor and thus cannot sting.
What Should I Know About the Venoms of Social Hymenoptera?
Venoms of social Hymenoptera vary in composition, but all contain a complex mixture of chemicals. They include chemical compounds such as histamine, peptides, and enzymes such as hyaluronidase and phospholipase. Several of these chemicals cause immediate burning pain and thus are involved in defending the colony against predators such as raccoons and bears, or people who disturb the colony. Unfortunately, certain of the peptides and enzymes are allergens that are associated with inducing and eliciting allergic reactions, including systemic anaphylaxis.
Venoms of Solitary Wasps
The venoms of solitary wasps such as the cicada killer, mud daubers, and spider wasps consist primarily of chemicals that function in subduing and paralyzing other insects and spiders used as food for their larvae. These chemicals produce their effect on the nervous system of the prey and have little effect on humans aside from causing minor, temporary pain. However, venoms of some species of spider wasps contain chemicals that cause extreme but temporary burning pain. The venoms of solitary wasps are not known to contain allergens, and there are no reports of allergic reactions in people stung by them. The same is true of solitary bees such as carpenter bees.
Illustration by: Scott Charlesworth, Purdue University based in part on Akre et al. 1981
What Stages Are Involved in Allergic Reactions?
Allergic reactions involve a sequence of complex "steps." The explanation begins with a person who is prone to allergy being stung by a species of social Hymenoptera for the first time. This initial exposure to the venom does not induce an allergic reaction. One or more stinging episodes is needed to induce the primary immune response, which is described below.
An allergen or allergens in the injected venom induces certain cells of the immune system to form specific antibody(IgE) that attaches to mast cells found in connective tissue of the skin, lung, gut, and in tissue surrounding blood vessels. Some estimates claim there are as many as 50,000 IgE receptor binding sites per mast cell, and the amount of specific IgE is very high in an allergic person. Once the specific IgE antibody has attached to mast cells, the person is sensitized to the allergen or allergens in the injected venom.
A sensitized person who experiences a subsequent sting (perhaps months to years later) by the same or closely related species of social Hymenoptera may suffer an allergic reaction. This results when the newly injected allergen or allergens bind to receptors on specific IgE antibody molecules that had attached to mast cells during a previous stinging episode. The process results in the release of the chemical mediators of an allergic reaction. These chemicals include large quantities of histamine, an important contributor to allergic reactions. Histamine can cause smooth muscle contraction, leakage of fluid from blood vessels, and extensive swelling in airway passages and the throat. These effects are significant components of allergic reactions, including life-threatening systemic anaphylaxis.
Steps Involved in Immediate Hypersensitivity Illustration by: Scott Charlesworth, Purdue University
What Symptoms Are Associated with Systemic Anaphylaxis?
Systemic anaphylaxis is a serious, potentially life-threatening allergic reaction. Symptoms typically begin within minutes of a sting, but can be delayed for an hour or so. The symptoms are systemic, that is, they involve the body, not just the area in which the venom was injected. For example, a sensitized person stung on the finger may experience difficulty in breathing due to extensive swelling in airway passages and the throat. Another symptom of anaphylaxis is rapid drop in blood pressure (shock) resulting from leakage of fluids from blood vessels. These symptoms are associated with excessive quantities of histamine and other chemical mediators that have been released from mast cells.
NOTE: Most allergic reactions that are systemic do not result in anaphylaxis. However, they can include a variety of symptoms of varying seriousness such as: weak and rapid pulse; dizziness and fainting; nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting; anxiety and confusion; and itching and development of hives on areas of the body apart from the site of the sting. While in themselves not life-threatening, these symptoms are evidence that a person is sensitized and should consult with a physician as soon as possible.
What Should I Know About Emergency Treatment for an Allergic Reaction?
A person experiencing an allergic reaction following a sting should seek medical attention immediately! Systemic anaphylaxis can proceed very rapidly and requires rapid emergency medical intervention. The reader should be aware that antihistamines may reduce local swelling, but they do not reverse or even block the life-threatening symptoms of respiratory failure and cardiovascular collapse.
There is, however, a specific medication that has the potential to block a systemic reaction. It is known as "epinephrine" and is administered by injection (see below). Epinephrine acts by increasing smooth muscle contraction, increasing cardiac output to counter shock, and inhibiting further release of histamine from mast cells. Effectiveness is greatest if administered immediately after a sting before symptoms begin.
What Should I Do if I Suspect that I am Sensitized?
You should consult as soon as possible with a physician who specializes in allergies if you experience any of the symptoms of a systemic reaction (mentioned above) following a sting. An allergist can conduct tests to determine if you are sensitized to a venom or venoms of social Hymenoptera. The test most likely will involve venom of the honey bee, yellowjackets, hornets, and paper wasps, and fire ants if the person lives in the southern and western U.S. People who have a confirmed sensitivity typically are prescribed a "medic alert bracelet" that indicates the condition. They also may be prescribed a "sting emergency kit" that contains a syringe with a pre-loaded dose of epinephrine.
Some individuals who are sensitized may be candidates for venom "desensitization". This is a process that involves a series of injections of minute, but increasing quantities of pure venom containing the allergen or allergens to which the person has been sensitized. Venom desensitization can be highly effective, but it is not appropriate for every person. Consultation with an allergist will determine this.
If I Am Sensitized to One Type of Venom Can I Have an Allergic Reaction to Another Type?
Venoms of certain closely related species of social Hymenoptera can contain the same allergen or very similar allergens, and thus it is possible for a person to be allergic to the venom of more than one species. For example, a person who is allergic to yellowjacket venom might also be allergic to hornet venom or paper wasp venom, but only if the person is sensitized to the same specific allergen present in all the venoms. In contrast, the venoms of social wasps and the venom of the honey bee differ substantially in chemical composition, including most of the potential allergens. Thus a person allergic to honey bee venom usually is not allergic to venoms of social wasps, and vice versa. Again, however, allergy to social Hymenoptera venoms is a complex topic and people concerned about it should consult with an allergist.
Where Can I Find More Information About Allergy and Allergic Reactions?
The following website contains accurate and current information on allergy and allergic reactions, including anaphylaxis.
A recent (2002) textbook by G. Mullen and L. Durden, Medical and Veterinary Entomology, has an excellent chapter devoted to stinging Hymenoptera that covers biology, behavior, and medical risk. Another recent (2006) textbook by Abbas, A.K. and A.H. Lichtman, Basic Immunology Functions and Disorders of the Immune System, has an excellent chapter devoted to allergic reactions, including anaphylaxis.
We greatly appreciate the assistance of Dr. Steven Wikel, University of Connecticut Health Center, in developing the information pertaining to allergy and allergic reactions.