NEW YORK - Most adults have a tough time telling hornets, wasps and bees apart, which could spell trouble if a sting causes a severe allergic reaction, according to a new study.
Stings from bees, wasps, yellow jackets, hornets and ants - all members of the Hymenoptera order of insects - resulted in 25,360 hospital visits from 2001 through 2004.
Insect identification is helpful in diagnosing a Hymenoptera venom allergy, prescribing a treatment and providing guidance on prevention, said Dr. Troy Baker of the Malcolm Grow Medical Clinics and Surgery Center at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland and colleagues, writing in the Annals of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.
Insects can sting without being seen, are relatively small, and can look similar to one another, making it hard to identify the perpetrator in many cases, they added.
To see how good people are at identifying common stinging insects, Baker and colleagues enrolled 640 adults from four different air force bases in Maryland, Florida, Ohio and Nevada.
The study participants looked at pictures of four stinging insects and two different nests in photographs on a six-question multiple choice test. They also answered questions about themselves, including whether they had ever been stung by an insect.
Nine of every ten participants had been stung by at least one insect in the past, with 41 per cent stung two or three times and 20 per cent stung four to six times.
On average, people answered three out of six questions correctly. Just 20 people had a perfect score and 10 had them all wrong.
The honeybee was correctly identified 90 per cent of the time. Next was the yellow jacket, correctly identified 72 per cent of the time, and the hornet and wasp, each correctly identified about half the time.
Only a minority of participants recognised the nests. About 30 per cent recognised the hornet nest and 18 per cent knew the wasp nest.
Perhaps not surprisingly, people who'd been stung were better at identifying honeybees, wasps and wasp nests.
"Overall, this study supports the general perception that adults are poor discriminators in distinguishing stinging insects with the exception of the honeybee," the authors write.
For that reason, they advise that people who've had a bad reaction to an insect sting should be tested for the venom of all flying stinging insects.
Patrick Liesch, who manages the University of Wisconsin Insect Diagnostic Lab but was not involved with the study, told Reuters Health by email that a lot of stinging insects have evolved to look fairly similar. "They have these bright flashy colors - yellow and black - and it kind of serves as a warning pattern," he said.
"They can deliver a painful sting," he added. "So I think that in general people probably have a pretty good feel for these yellow and black insects - that they may able to sting." But when it comes to telling them apart, "things may get blurred a little bit."
Liesch said people who are stung can capture the insect and keep it at home in a container.
"If you start having some kind of adverse reaction you can get it to the physician, who then may be able to identify it and if they can't positively identify it, they can get it to another resource, like an entomologist," he said.
He added that if the bug can't be captured, experts can often identify insects from photographs, as long as they're not too dark and the resolution is good.
For identifying stinging insects at home, Liesch recommends a series of books called Things That Bite by Tom Anderson. An internet search will also identify local websites that can help.
"Most states are going to have some type of extension service fact sheet describing stinging insects," he said.