By Regina Malczewski
Ouch! You were bitten by a mosquito, and now you have an itchy red bump on your skin! Are insects out to get us? Why do those bites and stings itch and hurt so much? While some insects (like mosquitos) need to suck blood to survive, most other insects bite only to protect themselves or their territories. They pierce our skin using their mouth parts or stingers, and inject venoms that contain a complex mixture of chemicals — including formic acid, hormones, and enzymes that affect our bodies. The venom of the fire ant alone contains 46 different proteins!
Stinging or biting bugs include lice, ticks, bedbugs, and many winged insects. Most reactions are relatively harmless, and depend on the bug and the victim. Our immune systems react with redness, swelling (including blisters), itching, and burning. In cases of severe allergies, people can experience vomiting, breathing issues, muscle spasms, fever, and rapid heartbeat. These are symptoms of anaphylactic shock and require medical attention. The use of an EpiPen, a medical device that contains the hormone norepinephrine, helps the user’s body fight these symptoms. People who are very young or are old are the most susceptible to harm from bug bites, and summer is the season when most bites occur.
Dangerous bites don’t always inject chemicals. Sometimes they deliver microbes into our blood. Certain mosquitoes in warm climates carry a parasite that causes malaria, a flu-like disease that affects 290 million people every year, and kills more than 400,000. Deer ticks harbor the bacterium responsible for Lyme disease, and fleas on rats carry a microbe that causes bubonic plague. That disease killed millions in Europe in the 1300s and 1600s, and still infects 5,000 people around the world each year. Fly poop can contain the organisms that cause sleeping sickness, cholera, and typhoid fever.
But, for all their stinging, biting, and diseases, it is possible to protect ourselves from insects. Keep your house clean. Wear long pants and long-sleeved shirts when you are in forested or wilderness areas. Avoid getting too close to bee nests or hives, keep foods and drinks covered, wear neutral color clothing, and avoid sweet-smelling lotions and perfumes.
If you want to have insect-free adventures outdoors, use natural bug sprays (or candles, necklaces, or wipes) that contain materials like OLE (oil of lemon eucalyptus), citronella, peppermint, or clove oil. When you come back inside after spending time outdoors, have your parent or guardian help check your body for ticks. If you have been bitten or stung, remove any stinger, wash the area, and apply an ice pack; anti-itch creams can be used as needed.
We need to learn to coexist with insects, since they are so important for ecological balance and human well-being. But we also need to manage our interactions with them in responsible and earth-friendly ways, and help keep ourselves safe too!
Regina Malczewski, Ph.D. is a retired biochemist who worked at Dow Corning Corporation in Midland, MI.