Guide to UK insects that bite or sting: how to identify and avoid being bitten

In the warmer months of spring and summer, Britain's insect population surges with humans often becoming unfortunate prey. Here is our guide to UK insects that bite or sting with tips on how to protect against bug bites.

red ant on leaf

With the arrival of warmer weather, people swarm in their hundreds to the great outdoors to soak up the sun and spend time with friends and family. But we’re not the only creatures coming out in droves to enjoy the delights of summer.

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While a nuisance to us as we try to make the most of the precious sunshine, insects are just trying to survive. Remember, most of these insects attack when they feel threatened. Be cool and calm (and maybe use an insect repellent) and you should come away bite free this season.

Here is our guide to UK insects that bite or sting with tips on how to protect against bug bites.

1

Wasps

Wasps, and their larger brethren the hornet, are probably the mostly highly feared insect of the Great British summertime. Their stings are the cause of the most allergic reactions in the UK, but you won’t be allergic on your first sting, allergy develops after one or more, when the venom has sensitised your system.

Common-wasp
Dusted with pollen, a common wasp (Vespula vulgaris) searches for nectar; a queen wasp begins building her nest; harvesting protein from a dead fly for the brood back at the nest; workers tend to the structure that houses the next generation of wasps

Avoid these aggressive predators calmly and slowly. Batting wasps away will only make them cross and more likely to sting you. If you do get stung and start to feel faint, out of breath or your skin begins to swell up, seek immediate medical attention.

Summer Macro bumblebee image on thistle,taken at Glan Oughterard Co Galway.

2

Bees

Similar to wasps, bees sting when they feel threatened. Humans can also be allergic to bee stings, but if you’re not, then it’s unlikely to cause any serious damage. Don’t assume that you’re allergic to one if you are to the other: bee and wasp venoms are different.

Honey bee on Echinop Thistle
Honey bee on Echinop Thistle (Getty)
3

Ticks

Not technically insects, bites from these spider-like creatures are on the increase following walks through woods, moors and thick grass. Ticks latch on to your skin using little hooks on their teeth and then suck your blood. Bites don’t really hurt, but there are certain types that transmit Lyme disease. Symptoms commonly start with a red circular rash, followed by muscular and joint pain. If you think you may have Lyme disease, go to your doctor as soon as possible for treatment.

A deer tick, Ixodes scapularis, on a fingertip
A deer tick, Ixodes scapularis, on a fingertip

What are ticks?

Ticks are blood-sucking parasites that belong to the spider family. They are placed only behind mosquitoes in the disease transmission stakes, spreading infectious disease to humans and animals, and from one mammalian host to another.

Read our guide to ticks: how to protect your dog and treat tick bites

 

Deer Tick, Adult female. Ixodes dammini. Lyme Disease, 5X at 35mm. The head has a piercing organ called the hypostome. The nymph stage is the most likely stage to infect humans.

4

Mosquitoes

Mosquitoes have become synonymous with the spread of diseases like Malaria in foreign countries. However in the UK, the nuisance insects are mostly just the scourge of late afternoon relaxing. Their bites cause lots of itching and can swell.

Biting mosquito
Biting mosquito, Culex pipiens, close-up (Getty)

Cover up during the early morning and evening, and use over-the-counter repellents to avoid getting bitten. Netting over your bed at night can also help keep them at bay.

5

Midges

Those who have enjoyed trips to the Scottish Highlands will be very familiar with these tiny critters. They can also be found in the rest of the UK, especially on damp, cloudy summer days. Bites are quite painful and intensely itchy. Don’t be surprised if they swell up too.

swarm of midges
Midges can be a pest (Getty)
6

Ants

The common black garden variety is not a biter, but we have other varieties that are. Red, wood and flying ants are little nippers when it’s warm, or if they feel threatened. Ants have lower toxin levels than bees or wasps, so while you may feel a little pinch, the only evidence you may get is a little pink mark.

red ant on leaf

7

Spiders

Spiders have hit the headlines this year after the false widow spider species made the rounds in the south of the country, but surprisingly, there are a number of spiders in the UK capable of having a quick nibble. As with most insects, spiders will bite as a way of defending themselves, and you can tell it’s a spider bite by two little puncture marks left in the skin. Bites from the false widow can cause redness and painful swelling, with symptoms progressing if the bite becomes infected. Like with all insect bites, keep an eye on them and make sure they stay as clean as possible to avoid them getting worse. And don’t scratch!

Spider
A single false widow spider (male) (Getty)
8

Caterpillars

The oak processionary moth is one prickly pest. They’re often found in late spring and summer crawling up and around, you guessed it, oak trees. Long white hairs cover their bodies in the thousands, and touching one triggers a multitude of symptoms including interminably itchy skin rashes, breathing difficulties and eye problems. These hairs get left all over the oak tree too, so you don’t even have to see a caterpillar to be affected.

oak-moth
Oak processionary moth caterpillars in nest detail. (Getty)
9

Flower bugs

They may sound like the most docile of insects, but don’t let the name fool you. Flower bugs are predatory insects that feed mainly on aphids and mites, but can take an aggressive bite out of human skin too. The wounds can be slow to heal and are incredibly itchy. Identify them by their tiny oval body, reflective wings and orange-brown legs.


When should I be concerned about a bug bite?

It is normal for bites or stings to feel a bit sore and uncomfortable, but if the bite doesn’t start to improve within a couple of days or begins to get worse then it is important seek medical attention. Try to keep the bite clean to avoid infection.

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The NHS website offers advice on how to treat insect bites and symptoms to look out for. www.nhs.uk/conditions/insect-bites-and-stings

How to avoid being bitten

Most insects are more active during the early mornings and late evenings – this is when midges are at their worst. If you’re sitting outside try to sit somewhere in the sun and with a breeze, as midges don’t like these conditions. Midges prefer dark clothes, so try dressing as brightly as possible.Insect repellent is worth using if you are spending a lot of time outdoors and it is advisable to cover up in long grassland to avoid tick bites.