Help! My horse was stung by a bee!
As we move into fall, insects are in full force — and a nuisance to people and horses. While plenty of equine insect control products are available to repel and control horse flies, deer flies, mosquitoes, or ticks, these products are not for use against wasps, hornets, or bees. In fact, these insect control products are toxic to the bee population and should not be applied or allowed to drift to blooming plants and crops when pollinating insects are in the area.
But keeping your horses safe from wasps, hornets, and bees is a legitimate concern. Horses spend a lot of time with their noses to the ground, where they can easily come into contact with ground-dwelling insects. Additionally, horses constantly have their noses in plants and grass blossoms that attract stinging pollinators. Add in that horses are naturally curious — sometimes to their own detriment — and it's easy to see why horses sometimes run into the occasional stinging insect.
Let's look at a few ways to keep your pastures and stable areas free of bees and wasp nests and what to do if your horse is stung by an insect.
Bees, wasps, hornets¦what's the difference?
First, let's define a few terms. Many times, the insects people call "bees" are not bees at all (kind of like how peanuts aren't nuts; they're legumes). True bees include honey bees — the domesticated kind humans raise to collect honey — and other "wild" bees like bumblebees, mason bees, etc. Bees are generally fairly docile and less aggressive about defense unless threatened.
Honey bees sting only once, and often, the stinger is left behind. However, a honey bee sting on a horse is rare. If you find a honey bee stinger in your horse's skin, don't squeeze it; that may worsen the reaction. Instead, try to scrape away the stinger using a flat, stiff object (credit cards are often used for bee stings on humans).
Wasps, including the sub-species of hornets, are usually more aggressive and often cause what people generally call a bee sting. Wasps tend to have a "cranky" attitude, striking to sting when someone or something gets too close to the nest. Wasps can sting multiple times since the stinger remains attached to the insect each time and isn't removed like a honey bee.
Hornet and wasp stings are probably the bigger threat to your horse, but you can do your best to prevent them with the following two tips.
Tip #1: Pay Attention
One of the most effective control methods for stinging insects is to look for their nests before your horse (or you) gets stung. Wasps often create paper or mud nests under the eaves of buildings. Be sure to add a routine inspection of your stable, outdoor shelters, hay storage buildings, etc., to your summer chore checklist.
Wasps can also build nests on fence posts and under fence rails, along rarely-used gates, in pasture shade trees, and along areas of tall grass — not to mention in small holes like abandoned chipmunk burrows. During your inspections for nests, also watch for the insects themselves as they fly back and forth to the nest. Wait long enough, and you'll notice insects returning to the same point, coming from various directions. The common point of return is likely the nest's location.
Another sign is when you receive a warning "hit" by an insect, where it collides with your body without stinging. Heed the warning! Retreat and try to locate the nest from a distance.
Tip #2: Eliminate Attractions
Despite how it seems, stinging insects aren't really out to harm anyone. They're just trying to do a job — collect food. If you can remove food sources, you may discourage the insects. Sugary smells attract insects of all kinds, but especially stinging bugs. Try to keep fallen fruit from fruit trees cleaned up and garbage cans in the barn area. Wasps and bees also forage for water as well as food, so they might be attracted to standing water — puddles, troughs, birdbaths, water collected on a plastic object, etc.
Stinging insects can also be attracted to manure or compost piles, so you may want to address their location.
What to Do if Your Horse Is Stung
It's quite possible you won't know your horse is stung. Most often, stings only cause horses mild discomfort. However, you may notice your horse acting unusual or rubbing a particular area, and these behaviors may help you find the sting site. To help bring your horse relief, use Farnam Aloe Heal on the sting to reduce skin irritation. Farnam Tri-Care triple action wound treatment is another soothing option that includes emu oil and tea tree oil, which promotes healing and reduces skin irritation.
Your horse's veterinarian may recommend icing the affected area to help alleviate local swelling or running cold water from a hose over it. Depending on the severity, they may suggest an equine anti-inflammatory pain reliever or an antihistamine. Allergic reactions are less common but can include hives or an elevated heart rate. Anaphylactic shock is unusual in horses, but it can happen, and your horse should see a veterinarian immediately.
In rare cases, a sting on the nose may cause swelling severe enough to restrict breathing. A horse can't breathe through its mouth like a human. In the case of severe swelling around the nose, your horse's veterinarian might recommend supporting your horse's nostrils with a stiff plastic tube, available in kits made for just this situation. A kit like this might be practical to have on hand in regions with a lot of wasps. It's also a useful emergency plan for snake bites.
"Bee" Careful Out There!
Horses graze outdoors, so the occasional run-in with a stinging insect certainly may occur. By keeping your eyes open and identifying potential issues, you can minimize your horse's exposure to wasps, hornets, and bees and keep him happy, healthy, and (hopefully) sting-free all year long.