The Chemicals And Components Of Insect Sting Venom, Why They Hurt, And What Causes The Allergic Reaction

Posted on: 14 December 2018


There are hundreds of stinging insects the world over, and none of their stings or bites is any less painful than the last. You might be wondering exactly what chemicals and components make up insect venom and why they hurt so much. Then you might be wondering what causes a severe enough stinging insect allergic reaction to the venom that some people need to carry an epi-pen. All of that information follows.

Cell Destroying Chemicals

​What better way for such tiny insects to defend themselves than to inject their perceived "attackers" with venom that obliterates living cells? That is what is in bee venom, and some of the venom of its cousins, the wasps. Melittin, specifically, causes cells to explode on contact. If you have ever been stung by a bee, you can practically feel the cells in the stung flesh rupturing all over the place under the skin.

Another component, an enzyme called ​phospholipase A., ​actually causes red blood cells to explode. If you could put some of your blood under a powerful microscope, add some bee or wasp venom to the sample, and take another look, you would see hundreds of cells being obliterated all at once and changing color as they die. Other, similar enzymes exist in ant venom, and the most extreme of these is the venom of the brown recluse spider's venom, which causes nearly instantaneous cell death and rotting of the flesh.

Surprisingly, the remaining chemicals in insect and spider venom that are meant to cause pain are almost insignificant in comparison to the above chemicals and enzymes found in the venom. That says a lot about the potency of the pain-inducing chemicals! People who are allergic have much more violent reactions to some component in the venom, and that is why they are allergic. 

​What Causes the Allergic Reaction

Allergic reactions to insect venom are a result of a variety of factors. Genetics most definitely plays a part. If you have one parent that is allergic to insect venom, you are more likely to be born or develop an allergic response to the same insect venom. Additionally, insects like hornet wasps have histamine in their venom. Histamine is a chemical that causes an immediate allergic reaction in people who are sensitive to histamines. Taking an antihistamine, such as the type you take for hay fever, can help stop the reaction to the sting and keep it from getting worse.