Wasps, Food and Anaphylactic Shock

In the month of August, wasps have reached the point in their life cycle when they turn their attention to us and, more to the point, our food for its sweetness. Just to turn back the seasonal clock for a moment, let us consider their life cycle on the whole. The only wasps able to survive the winter into the spring are the young fertilised queens. These queens emerge approximately in mid-April from winter hibernation. Having emerged they will find a location suitable for the construction of a new nest. Such locations can include wall cavities, loft spaces and sheds. Using a combination of chewed wood pulp and saliva, the queen builds the first cell of the nest and lays between 10 and 20 eggs.

The resulting larvae are fed by the queen until the point when they emerge as workers. The function of the workers is then to expand the fabrication of the nest and provide food for subsequent larvae. The nest will grow in size eventually to be roughly the size of a football and will house around 5000 individuals. Sometimes they are larger than this. In the late summer new males and queens emerge. These will mate, and as the queens will find locations in which to hibernate, the males will die off as the weather cools. The nest will be abandoned and will not be used again.

Wasps, unlike bees, are carnivorous. They feed on infant grubs. Such grubs exude a sweet substance to which the wasps become addicted. By the time that August comes around, the grubs have reached maturity and no longer exude the sweet substance. The wasps, however, have become addicted to this sweet substance, and so they become a nuisance to us as they search for food containing sugar that will satisfy their addiction. It is quite surprising the extent to which our food products do indeed contain sugar.

Many food products that we would normally associate with the promotion of good health contain quite considerable quantities of sugar. Bread, cereals, salad dressings, pasta sauces all contain sugar and can attract the attention of those yellow and black striped sugar junkies. This is not to mention all of the food that we eat for pleasure such as ice cream, carbonated beverages, sweets, fruit and alcoholic beverages (if you have ever enjoyed an alcoholic beverage in the beer garden of a public house at this time of year, it is likely that you will have encountered a wasp as a nuisance to your leisure). Many people will also be familiar with the way in which wasps can be an extremely irritating presence at a picnic, as they attempt to consume our food.

In the previous blog post, you may recall that we mentioned a method by which you might decrease the chance that your meals, drinks and picnics would be plagued by multiple wasps when one has been detected. Do not kill the lone wasp; simply isolate it such that it cannot return to its nest and communicate the location of you and your food stuff to the other wasps. The reason you ought not to kill the lone wasp is that a wasp in danger releases a pheromone to signal to the other wasps that there is a threat (and you do NOT want that!). Wasps can sting multiple times, unlike bees, and they will not die. A bee will only sting you when it perceives an exceptional threat.

It is this fact that brings us on to a very serious area: for a minority of individuals a wasp sting can be fatal. If you are stung in the neck or in the mouth, or, indeed, if you experience nausea, giddiness, unusual swelling or extreme pain following being stung you must immediately seek medical assistance. It is quite possible that you are experiencing an allergic reaction called anaphylaxis. Anaphylactic shock can be caused by substances other than the stings of wasps and bees. Certain foods can cause it, such as a range of nuts, fish, shellfish and dairy products. It can be caused by contact with natural latex (rubber) and medicines such as penicillin. In some individuals, anaphylaxis can be caused by engaging in physical exercise, or a combination of physical exercise with certain medicines. The symptoms of an allergic reaction such as this can include: a sense of impending doom; swelling of the throat and mouth; alterations in heart rate; flushing of the skin generally over the body; hives anywhere on the body; difficulty in speaking and swallowing; a sharp decrease in blood pressure resulting in a sudden feeling of weakness; severe asthma; pain in the abdomen; nausea and vomiting; collapsing and unconsciousness.

Individuals who are known to experience a severe and potentially fatal reaction such as this will have adrenaline auto-injector prescribed for them by a doctor. The adrenaline, once introduced to the body, acts to constrict blood vessels and relax muscles in the lungs. This serves to help with breathing and reduce the risk of asphyxiation. The adrenaline will also serve to stimulate the heart beat and decrease swelling in the face and lips.

If you have experienced what you might suspect was an allergic reaction to anything in the past, or of you have asthma, it is well worth your while consulting your GP, who might then refer you to an allergy specialist. An action such as this might well save your life, especially at this time of year when we are enjoying the warm weather.