Despite Australia having a well-established reputation for poisonous creatures that bite and sting, it’s generally not our winged insects that get the press. While some of the most venomous creatures in the world are Australian natives – including the world’s most venomous spider and snake – our flying insects are known more as an annoyance. In fact, the Australian winged insect with the worst reputation for being a danger to humans is a well-known import – the European Wasp.
Easily mistaken for a Bee, the European Wasp is a relatively common visitor at Australian BBQs, given its fondness for meat and sweet food and drink. Most Australians know you need to be careful with open cans of drink that have been left outdoors unattended. Once recognised as a wasp and not a Bee, they’re generally given a wide berth – European Wasps are notorious for being both easily irritated and aggressive stingers.
But how much threat do European Wasps actually pose to humans? Do they deserve their fearsome reputation?
The European Wasp in Australia
The European Wasp is a relatively late arrival in Australia. Native to Europe (hence the name), they were first encountered on Australian soil in Tasmania in the late fifties. But by the late seventies, they were also established in Victoria, New South Wales, South Australia and Western Australia – most likely having hitchhiked there on human transportation.
Unfortunately, being an introduced species, the European wasp has no natural predators in Australia. When they get established in an area, they’re free to prey on local species and eat their food. They’re also aggressive and territorial (operating from well-hidden nests), which can mean they’re often quite a danger to humans.
The European Wasp queen
The European Wasp operates in nests or colonies, based around a single queen – these are a fair bit larger than the normal wasps, up to 2cm in length.
European Wasp colonies are started by a single fertile queen. These hatch from established nests in late autumn and mate with males from the colony – who typically die off soon after. The queens, however, usually fly away from the colony and find a hiding spot to spend the winter – hibernating there for up to six months. After this, they’ll awaken for the spring and then find a sheltered place to start a nest. This is quite likely how the European Wasp has managed to travel so far and wide – the queens finding a quiet hole to hibernate in aboard a ship, train or truck and then waking up somewhere far away.
Once the nest is started, the queen will lay some eggs – the first batch of workers. Once these have hatched, they’ll generally take over tasks like building the nest and collecting the food, leaving the queen to focus on egg-laying. The nest will grow in size and numbers right through summer, and by mid autumn, it might be the size of a basketball and have over 15,000 wasps.
Toward the end of summer, the queen will normally start to lay larger eggs for queens and breeding males, which soon hatch and mate. The new queens then fly off to hibernate and start their own nests. The original queen and the remaining wasps die off by the end of autumn, and the nest eventually collapses.
At least, this is the normal way that European Wasps operate. Unfortunately, in the warmer Australian climate, it’s not unknown for one of the new queens to remain in the old nest and skip their hibernation cycle. This means they’ll spend the entire winter in the well-established nest laying more eggs and raising a whole new generation of wasps to maintain the nest. This can give rise to mega-nests the size of a bar-fridge or larger, with up to 100,000 wasps inside. Which is a problem for anyone nearby, obviously.
What does a European Wasp look like?
European wasps are quite similar in appearance to honey bees, with a few distinctive differences. Bees are generally squat in shape and have a golden, honey-like colour. Wasps are thinner, sleeker, and their colouration is more of a bright, ripe-banana yellow. Bees are also fuzzier in appearance, with visible hairs around the body and on the legs. Wasps might have some hairs visible but will generally look shinier.
It can be difficult at a glance to tell a European Wasp from other, less harmful wasps – such as the Paper Wasp or Common Wasp. But as a general rule, European Wasps are the closest to the size of a bee. European Wasps also tend to draw their legs in close to their bodies while in flight and don’t tend to hover (flying around relatively quickly from place to place). Similar wasps – such as the Paper Wasp – will allow their back legs to dangle and often hover mid-air.
Will a European Wasp sting me?
Unfortunately, the answer to this question is quite often “yes”. European wasps are easily agitated and willing to sting if threatened – particularly if they feel their nest is under threat. Unlike many bees, European Wasps can sting multiple times. If a Honeybee worker stings you, it’s a kamikaze attack – the bee’s stinger is torn out in the process, killing the bee. This is not true of wasps like the European Wasp, who can (and will) sting you as many times as they wish.
A European Wasp won’t necessarily seek out a human to sting them, but if they end up close enough to feel threatened (possibly because they’ve come to your BBQ and are investigating your plate of food), getting stung is a real possibility.
European Wasp nests are particularly dangerous in this respect, as they’re highly territorial. If anything seems to be attacking their nest, they’ll quite often respond in force, with hundreds of wasps aggressively chasing the attacker and stinging it repeatedly. European Wasp nests should always be treated with the utmost respect, and dealing with them is a job for experts.
Can I die from a European Wasp sting?
Technically yes, although it’s not quite as cut and dried as that.
Usually, a European Wasp sting is painful and unpleasant but not life-threatening – a single sting is normally not dangerous. Generally, the only risk from a single sting is the risk of Anaphylactic shock – the most extreme form of allergic reaction, which is potentially life-threatening. This is a genuine danger, and wasp stings are a common cause of Anaphylactic reactions. But, this is also true of bees.
Bees and wasps are both counted among the more deadly animals in Australia, going by number of deaths – wasps have killed seven times more people than spiders in the last 20 years. But this is almost always due to an Anaphylactic reaction – unlike a bite from a Brown Snake or Redback Spider, a wasp sting is usually only life-threatening if you’re allergic.
Two factors make this slightly more complicated. Firstly, because European Wasps can sting multiple times, it’s pretty normal for people who’ve been attacked by a wasp to be suffering from many stings – especially if they were attacked by more than one wasp. This can be very painful and can sometimes mean medical attention is needed. If someone accidentally stirs up a nest, they can often suffer dozens of stings in a matter of minutes. The general recommendation is that if an adult suffers more than 10 European Wasp stings (or more than 5 for a child), you should be calling 000 for medical assistance immediately.
The second factor that complicates the issue is that in many cases (around 1 in 10), suffering more than one European Wasp sting can actually make you allergic – meaning future stings become far more dangerous.
Symptoms of a European Wasp sting
A European Wasp sting will generally involve a sharp pain or burning sensation at the sting site, followed by a raised welt around the wound. The point where the sting occurred may be visible as a small white mark in the middle of the welt. It will typically be a fair bit more painful than a Bee sting. In mild cases, these symptoms should recede within a few hours.
In more severe cases, symptoms might include significant redness and swelling around the stings, which may worsen over the following day or two. These should resolve by themselves over about a week or so.
If someone begins to suffer unusual widespread symptoms after a European Wasp sting – including swelling of the mouth or throat, difficulty breathing of swallowing, abdominal pains, sudden weakness, or falling unconscious, these could well be a sign of an anaphylactic reaction – which is very serious.
European Wasp sting treatment
If someone has received a significant number of European Wasp stings or is showing symptoms of Anaphylaxis, you should call 000 immediately. Anaphylactic shock is life-threatening, and you may have limited time to respond. If they stop breathing, you should begin resuscitation at once. Be aware that if the person knows they’re allergic, they might have an action plan amongst their belongings – and possibly an adrenaline shot, which could be life-saving at this point.
You should also keep the person as still as possible and apply a pressure bandage to the sting site if one is available, as this will slow the spread of the venom.
For less severe stings, the main issue (other than watching for signs of an allergic reaction) is managing the pain and discomfort. Cold packs can be handy for reducing swelling and easing the pain, depending on how numerous and widespread the stings are – obviously, you can’t place a cold pack over your entire body. Pain medication and creams may help ease symptoms, and antihistamines may help with swelling – your pharmacist should have helpful advice here.
If there’s anyone with formal first aid training in the area, they’re probably the people you want to defer to. Not only does first aid training cover bites, stings and envenomation, they’ll also have a good grounding in recognising the symptoms of Anaphylaxis, administering adrenaline, and – if necessary – performing CPR. If anyone in your family is prone to severe allergies, it’s probably a good idea to consider investing a day in getting first aid training yourself!
How to get rid of European Wasp nests
If you see European Wasps regularly in your area, it may indicate that there’s a nest somewhere around. Laying meat or sweet food out in a place where wasps frequent might attract a wasp to the food, at which point they’ll likely head in a straight line back to their nest to notify other wasps.
Be very careful in an area you suspect to have a European Wasp nest and keep a healthy distance. The nests will generally be well hidden, with only a single opening – through which many wasps will be coming and going. 90% of European Wasp nests will be underground (with a small opening ). Others might be hidden in a hollow tree trunk or even a non-natural space such as a wall cavity or abandoned piece of furniture – so the opening might be hard to spot.
Don’t get too close! You don’t want to stir up the nest. Or worse: accidentally break through the unstable ground and fall into a pit filled with a mega-nest of 100,000 enraged wasps!
Destroying European Wasp nests
Even if you’ve managed to find the location of a European Wasp nest, you should never try removing it yourself – that’s a job for professionals. Contact a pest removal company specialising in wasp nests – and make sure you’re nowhere nearby when they’re working. It’s also worth contacting the Department of Primary Industries for your state, which often wants European Wasp nests reported.