The bugs of summer: How to prepare for encounters with insects


Stings from fire ants can leave behind multiple circles, pustules and blisters, which can be itchy and sore. (Photo courtesy of Tyler Jones/University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences)

Published: Saturday, May 25, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, May 24, 2013 at 1:43 p.m.

Summer in Florida means sunshine, showers and humidity. But it also could mean bug bites.

And as people — especially children — spend more time outdoors, they will be more susceptible to insect bites.

"The ones they're most likely to run into in their backyards are going to be mosquitoes and fire ants," said Phillip Kaufman, associate professor of entomology at the University of Florida. Other insects to watch out for are ticks and bees.

Kaufman explained that fire ants do not bite; they sting. As children approach their mounds, the fire ants can crawl onto them.

Using their front jaws, the ants clamp down onto exposed skin to anchor themselves. They then use their abdomens to sting repeatedly, rotating to sting different spots around them.

Kaufman said the best thing to do is quickly brush them off.

"They don't have wings, so they're not going to chase the child," Kaufman said.

Stings from fire ants can leave behind multiple circles, pustules and blisters, which can be itchy and sore. Kaufman said symptoms can last for about 10 days, and parents should keep an eye on the stings to spot possible infection.

To prevent fire ant attacks, Kaufman suggested parents point out what the mounds look like to children. He said the dirt mounds are fairly visible and often have grass growing out of them. They also may be located around trees and stumps, in rotting logs and under pavement and buildings.

Though mosquitoes are no strangers during the summer, Kaufman said being aware of the bugs and knowing how to block them could save you some itching.

Most mosquitoes are present at dawn and dusk, Kaufman said. Still, some breeds are daytime biters and can be found in shaded areas.

The bugs are attracted to carbon dioxide and heat, both of which humans constantly emit. They're also attracted to lactic acid, which is especially present when people are being active outdoors.

Kaufman said wearing a repellent can help prevent bites. Still, prevention isn't a guarantee.

"Mosquitoes are attracted to different people, so repellents are hard to judge whether they work or not," Kaufman said.

Another biting insect in the area is the tick.

"Ticks are really only a problem for people whose children go in the woods or to the edge of the woods," Kaufman said.

The insects pick up on odors until they find trails, lying low on leaves and small plants until unsuspecting people walk by. They then leap onto their ankles, bury their heads into the skin and draw blood.

Because the ankle is a common target area for ticks, Kaufman said repellent like picaridin should be concentrated there. He said hikers should try to tuck their pant legs into their socks, sealing off an entry point for ticks. He also recommended wearing light-colored clothing so it is easier to recognize if a tick is on you.

If you find a tick on yourself, Kaufman said the best thing to do is extract it with a set of fine-tip tweezers.

"Grasp the tick where the head is going into the skin, squeeze gently and slowly pull it straight out," he said.

Kaufman said burning it with a match and covering it in fingernail polish are "old wives' tales" and make the situation worse.

A tick's head has backward-facing teeth, and when they bury under the skin, they fan their teeth out and take hold, like a fishhook. The common misconception is that these methods suffocate the tick and it releases itself, but Kaufman said this is only partially true.

"It will kill it, but it will then vomit back into you," Kaufman said, "and now that it's dead it has no way of letting go of you so you can pull it out of the skin."

Kaufman said if the head of the tick remains in the skin after pulling it out, clean the area and watch it for a few days. If you see an expanding bull's-eye rash or get sick within the next 30 days, he suggested seeking medical attention.

The last insects that may cause a buzz this summer are bees.

According to Kaufman, unless they feel threatened, bees will not sting. If they do, their stingers and their venom sacks are tugged from their abdomens and they later die, which means they can only sting once.

Wasps, however, can sting multiple times and are more aggressive. Parents should look out for beehives and wasp nests, and alert a pest control service if they spot one in the area.

Though stings can be painful, Kaufman said that they tend to heal quickly. Bee allergies can be serious though, and Kaufman recommended keeping an EpiPen on hand after consulting with your physician.

"Most of the wasps in the area are fairly docile, but we have some that can be problematic," Kaufman said. "Most kids won't run into them."

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