Bees Among Deadliest Creatures in Australia

January 18, 2017
Kerry Lengyel

Bee and wasp stings were responsible for 33% of hospitalizations and 27 deaths over a 13-year period in Australia.

You might think the most dangerous creatures in Australia are the deadly jellyfish, sharks, and stingrays that roam the surrounding oceans. Or maybe you think the most lethal are the venomous snakes that make their home in both inland and coastal areas. But you’d be wrong. Sometimes it’s the tiniest packages that pack the most punch.

Of all the venomous creatures in Australia, bees and other insects have proven to be the deadliest.

A recent report from the University of Melbourne’s Australian Venom Research Unit on venomous bite and sting data spanning 13 years was published this week in the Internal Medicine Journal.

The research team, led by Ronelle Welton, BSc(Hons), PhD, MPHTM, examined national hospitalization and mortality data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare and National Coronial Information System from August 2001 to May 2013.

This is the first national analysis for Australia, and the results came as a surprise to investigators.

Venomous stings and bites resulted in about 42,000 hospitalizations over the 13-year study period, with bees and wasps responsible for 33% of hospitalizations, spiders for 30%, and snakes for 15%.

In all, 64 individuals were killed as a result of a venomous sting or bite (see table). Of these, 34 deaths were due to anaphylactic shock that set in following the injury. Anaphylaxis can kill quickly, and people are sometimes reluctant to seek medical attention after they’ve been bitten or stung until it’s too late.

Over half of the deaths occurred at home, with 64% occurring in major cities where health care is widely available.

Interestingly, while 75% of those who died from a snakebite made it to the hospital in an attempt to get treatment, only 44% of people who died from an insect sting went the hospital. Dr. Welton thinks this could be due to the fact that most people don’t fear insects in the same way they do snakes. She says, “Without having a previous history of allergy, you might get bitten and although nothing happens the first time, you've still developed an allergic sensitivity."

The study also showed bites and stings occurring primarily between April and October, mostly in men 30 to 35 years of age, with the highest number of recorded fatal stings and bites recorded in western and southern Australia. Tasmania was the only state in which no deaths were recorded.

In light of these study results, Dr. Welton believes the current national guidelines for preventing and treating envenomization should be reviewed. "From a public health perspective, we can't make informed decisions until we have a much clearer picture about what's going on," she says. With wide variations across the country, “the clinical management needs to vary for each state and territory."