BITES, STINGS, ALLERGIC REACTION, AND BEE STINGS
A meat ant of the genus Iridomyrmex1
There are over 1300 described species of ant in Australia, ranging in size from just 1mm, to the giant bull, or bulldog ants, which can vary in length from 10-30mm. Generally speaking, ants are either classified as predators or scavengers, and depending upon type, will either bite, bite and spray formic acid, or sting. Unlike bees however, stinging species of ant can sting repeatedly. Ants play a vital role in our ecology, but sometimes this role includes pain, suffering, and even death for grounded baby flying-foxes. Depending upon species, ant bites and stings will produce a range of conditions, ranging from small areas of localised pain, to blistering or swelling, right through to allergic reaction, anaphylactic shock, or an animal in the process of literally being eaten alive (and not just from the outside). Whilst it may take many hundreds of tiny "garden-variety" ants swarming over a baby to kill it, the larger meat ants of the subfamily Dolichoderinae can do some serious damage in a very short space of time. This family of ants do not sting - they bite; then spray the wound with formic acid, and are meat-eating scavengers.
Weaver ants overpowering larger prey2
These ants of the subfamily Formicinae(which include the Australian green tree ants) are classic biters and formic acid sprayers.
Ants eating baby flying-foxes alive is one thing, but the sting (in the tail - not the jaws) of just one single large and aggressive ant from the primitive subfamily Myrmeciinae - the bull, or bulldog ants (including Jumping Jacks), can cause life-threatening allergic reaction and anaphylactic shock, not to mention an intense burning pain at each site (personal experience).Therefore, when talking about ant bites and stings with flying-foxes, there are two separate areas we need to deal with: (1) physical harm, injury, and pain from bites and stings, and (2) allergic reaction and anaphylaxis from stings.
(1) ant bites in grounded babies (which are often found covered in ants) are all too common, and sometimes seen with grounded adults as well. These ants are doing one of two things: either trying to eat the bat alive (food), or vigorously defending their nest from a perceived threat (defence). Depending upon species, many of these ants bite, but do not sting. However, many species of biting ant, such as those in the subfamily Formicinae (of which there are over 400 species in Australia), bite and then spray formic acid into the wounds, which produces intense burning pain. Both these types of ant cause physical injury and pain. Included in this group are the notorious fire ants Solenopsis invicta, which claim the lives of many grounded bats in the southern US states each year. Although as yet, I have heard no reports from Australia, it is probably only a matter of time before this happens in south-eastern Queensland. This introduced and highly aggressive insect pest stings repeatedly, and its ability to shut down BBQs, parties, and some amateur sporting events is well documented.
(2) on very rare occasions, we may see a baby or adult on or near the ground with a mystery allergic condition, and struggling to breathe. If ants are the culprits, these are caused by the big bull ants, which actually sting - but do not bite.
Although rare, flying-foxes can also get stung by bees, and just like humans, bats can suffer from extreme allergic reaction. More on bees at base of this page.
This is by far the most common scenario, and most long-term bat carers have had several of these. Baby flying-foxes are born in summer - when ants are most active - and once marooned on the ground for whatever reason, it does not take long for these opportunistic little insects to find the unfortunate baby. Having found an orphaned pup, they will swarm over it in ever-increasing numbers, and dependent upon family, will either bite, or bite and then spray formic acid. This is not quick; it is a slow and painful death, which can take many hours. The formula comes down to simple maths - the more bites - the more pain and damage.
Many of these grounded orphans are already compromised: cold, exhausted, dehydrated, hungry, and weak - making them easy targets. Although at first our grounded baby may be able to crawl away, many are too weak, and ants leave chemical trails for others to follow, whereby more and more ants will track and find this "living food". Initially, baby is subjected to only a couple of bites, but within a short space of time, sheer force of numbers will eventually overwhelm it. Each round of bites will increasingly incapacitate the animal, until it reaches a point of just giving up - too weak to move or fight them off anymore. At this stage, ants may find their way into nostrils, mouth, and throat - redoubling the torment.
The good news however, is that many of these bubs are not only found, but with a bit of simple treatment, go on to full recovery in a relatively short space of time - even if they are buried under a seething black mass trying their best to turn them into lunch when found.
- OBSERVED & CLINICAL:
There really is no guesswork or differential clinical diagnosis needed with this one. Baby is usually on the ground, and visibly covered in ants. This will range from just a few (making baby's life a misery), to a literal seething black carpet; so dense that baby may be almost invisible underneath - and - very often still alive. These small ants do not leave obviously visible bite marks, but the tiny bites are there, they just require a lot of magnification to see them.
Treatment for babies covered in these small ants is relatively simple: namely - remove the ants; examine mouth and nostrils; bicarb compress; and monitor. In more severe cases, we may need decongestants, painkillers, and antibiotics.
MANUAL REMOVAL: our first task is obvious; we need to get those ants off fast, on site, immediately. Ants are much easier to get off than maggots. Soft baby brushes are ideal, but as few of us just happen to have one on hand, use any form of brushing: fingers, or a small bit of cloth will do just fine, and then finish knocking off any stragglers with tweezers. Once we think we have them all, pay particular attention to any last stray ants that may be hiding along the finger bones, and deep inside those wing pits. Any that we miss will keep biting.
NOSE & MOUTH EXAMINATION: once we have removed all ants from the outside, it is vital to carefully examine the ears, nostrils, inside of mouth, and throat. We had one little black male "coughing up" dead ants for nearly three days. "Internal" ant bites create pain, swelling, and initial feeding problems - see Judi's notes below. Careful use of tweezers (and another pair of helping hands) is ideal.
COOL BICARB COMPRESS: formic acid is acidic (obvious statement of the year), and as such, causes much pain. Remember, we are dealing with acid sprayed into multiple microscopic bite wounds. Once home, we need to quickly neutralise this acidity with a moderate solution of something alkaline. BICARBONATE OF SODA (with a ph of around 8.1) is cheap, safe, and most effective to provide soothing relief. We need to apply this as a cool compress by soaking a cloth in the solution, and then wrapping all affected parts. As wing membranes are often badly affected, this means we need to fully extend the wings, and wrap both surfaces with our bicarb soaked cloth. We also need to be aware that we are using cool compresses on a baby that actually needs warming - not cooling. It is therefore a balancing act between soothing pain relief and maintaining necessary body temperature. Luckily, acidity and burning is quickly neutralised by the bicarb, meaning a few minutes are usually long enough.
Mix at the rate of 1 tablespoon of bicarb to 500mL cooled pre-boiled water.
Caution: do not use washing soda - it is caustic - way too alkaline - and will burn.
PAINKILLERS: painkillers are not usually necessary, but may be prudent in extreme cases to help stabilise the animal. Although ant bites can be very painful, the pain associated with bites from these small ants is fairly short-lived; meaning that one dose is usually enough. Internal bites to tongue, mouth, and throat however, may require extended coverage. Be guided here by the animal's response, and/or advice from your vet.
ANTIBIOTICS: each tiny bite is a point of entry for infection, and there may be hundreds of invisible bites. It is well documented that ant bites which form blisters are notorious at infecting, so if at all in doubt, put baby on a five day preventative course of broad-spectrum antibiotic such as CLAVULOX ® or NOROCLAV ® - use (if needed) and dose rates as advised by your vet.
DECONGESTANTS: are often necessary if the nostrils are blocked from ant-bite damage (indicated by open-mouthed breathing, and/or inability to swallow). If nasal passages are blocked from damage and inflammation, baby will not be able to breathe and swallow at the same time, making feeding next to impossible. BISOLVON
ELIXIR ® (bromhexine hydrochloride) by Boehringer Ingelheim - developed for
human use, is very effective, and widely used as a safe mucus-thinning agent for baby bats. It also seems to reduce nasal passage swelling associated with trauma or bites.
KEEEP VIGILANT: monitor ant bitten babies very closely for 2-3 days for complications which may not at first be apparent, or may take time to develop once in care, such as localised swelling (anywhere), difficulty in breathing through the nose, localised blistering of wing membranes, watery eyes and corneal ulcers (common if bitten on or near the eyes), etc. The following text is kindly supplied by Judi Wood - offering excellent advice using a badly affected infant as an example.
Hi Dave, only limited experience, but we found with our worst one that a compress of bicarb of soda mixed with warm water on a clean cloth and then wrapped bat in it and kept as cool as we could given the need for warmth (we're talking borderline premmie here) seemed to work to reduce the discomfort. The worst problem was the ant bites inside the nostrils, which affected the infant's capacity to suck and breathe at the same time. This lasted only about 3 days but was a nightmare to cope with. We got through it by feeding small amounts frequently - i.e. two hourly. It was a two-carer household, so carers took turns feeding and allowing sleep for the other. We also used Bisolvon to reduce the swelling of the nasal tissue and drop fed the feed down the side of a dummy; with drops timed to match the swallowing reflex of the bat. In this way, she didn't need to expend energy to suck the formula through the teat, had minute amounts in the mouth at any one time, but still had the feed going through and the comfort of sucking on something.
The others haven't been so bad, and we've spot treated with bicarb paste and used Bisolvon and the dummy feeding if the nasal passages have been affected.
RATE ( BISOLVON
ELIXIR - CHESTY COUGH ®):
there are 3 different versions of this over the counter pharmacy
medication - it is the "chesty cough" version which
we use. The following rate is a guide only.
suspension containing 4mg bromhexine hydrochloride
per 5mL, given at the @ rate of 0.16 mg bromhexine hydrochloride per kg bodyweight, which equates to:
suspension per 1000 grams bodyweight (0.02mL per 100 grams, or
0.01mL per 50 grams). Given orally 3 times a day before feeds.
Judi Wood reports: 'We've found it effective given at 1 drop
20 minutes before a feed and have found that once it begins to take
effect you only need to dose every second feed - i.e. 3 times per
day. Given the huge safety parameters, it seems that this dose would
be safe for the few days it is generally helpful.'
2. GROUNDED BABIES BITTEN BY MEAT ANTS
Ants in this category are much larger, often more aggressive, and do not think twice about either adding a downed baby flying-fox to their menu-of-the-day, or defending their nest from this perceived threat by severely biting, or even killing the baby. These ants do not just bite however; they bite, and then spray formic acid into the bite wounds from the tip of their abdomens. With these things in mind, a baby flying-fox can be in a lot more trouble from just a handful of these insects than from being buried alive by hundreds of the much smaller "garden variety" ants. Bites from these larger ants tend to be more serious, cause longer lasting pain, and bite sites are highly prone to serious blistering and infection.
- OBSERVED & CLINICAL:
Unlike our little swarming garden ants above, there may or may not be any ants in sight (but they will not be far away). This is because although many "meat ants" regard a downed baby as just that - meat - many of them will simply vigorously defend their territory - i.e. bite like hell, then go away. Because however, you may be in their "defence zone" whilst rescuing junior, standing in one spot for just a short spell may well give you first-hand knowledge of just what these bites feel like - not to mention help identify ant bites as a possible cause.
Being a much larger ant, these bites are often clearly visible. Within a period ranging from several minutes to several hours, either a fluid filled blister, or a small white blister or pustule will form at the site of each bite. These may be associated with inflamed blood vessels in and around the bite site (seen by holding wing membrane up to the light). These blisters are itchy, painful, and are prone to infection if broken. Bites on membrane blister fast (being so thin), whereas bites on the body may be well nigh impossible to see: but may be felt as small raised lumps. When you touch a bite site on the body, baby may help you diagnose the bite by reacting with a pained flinch.
Suspected meat ant bite blisters (red arrows) of a grounded baby black male3
These blisters on the trailing edge of left wing and his right trouser slowly reabsorbed, but he was quite obviously in much pain whenever these areas were touched. He was not a "well boy" for about five days.
A close up of the blister on his trouser4
TREATMENT - ALSO EFFECTIVE FOR FIRE ANT STINGS:
Unlike the bites from tiny swarming ants, meat ant bites can remain itchy and painful for two to three days, and may take up to four weeks to fully resolve. Treatment is basically the same as the section above: namely; remove all ants; examine mouth and nostrils; cool bicarb compress; (and painkillers, antibiotic cover, and decongestants if necessary) - with the addition of: gently disinfecting the bite sites, oral antihistamine (Benadryl), and, if advised by your vet, topical cortisone such as PANALOG ®, and in severe cases, muscle relaxants such as PAMLIN ® (Diazepam) may be beneficial. Note that Benadryl is also a sedative.
Warning: do not ever administer more than one painkiller or sedative at any one time - i.e. BENADRYL, or DIAZEPAM, or PANADOL, but never in conjunction with each other.
DISINFECTING BITE SITES: once we have applied our bicarb compress, each bite site should then be gently cleansed with 50:50 BETADINE ® TO PRE-BOILED
WATER applied with
cotton tips or soft cloth. Be very careful to swab only, as we must strive to leave any blisters intact; avoiding breaking at all costs. Broken ant bite blisters will very often infect.
ORAL ANTIHISTAMINE: BENADRYL ® (diphenhydramine hydrochloride) human cough medicine by Pfizer, is safe, effective, and readily available over-the-counter at most pharmacies. Diphenhydramine is highly recommended for insect bites and stings, as it provides fast, effective reversal of the often-dangerous effects of a massive histamine release at receptor sites, and inhibits re-uptake of neurotransmitter serotonin. It also provides rapid sedative and calming effects for the affected animal. Benadryl has been
successfully used many times by Dr. Teri Bellamy for mild sedation of flying-foxes, and since release of the first version of this manual, many other groups and individuals (including myself) have reported effective use, with no observed side-effects. Be aware that there are two versions of this medication: drowsy, and non-drowsy. Obviously,
it is the drowsy version that we require and use: the other one will have no effect.
COUGH MEDICINE ® - DROWSY VERSION):
hydrochloride - given orally:
0.2mL per 1000 grams bodyweight. (0.02mL per 100 grams). Orally - (no more than twice
TOPICAL CORTISONE: if administered early, corticosteroids may protect against cutaneous necrosis by stabilising cell membranes and suppressing chemotaxis. Corticosteroids also tend to protect against systemic involvement. In known bites, early treatment can be successful, but unfortunately, many cases are not recognised until cutaneous necrosis has become extensive. Treatment at that stage is less effective, but may still be of value.
PANOLOG OINTMENT ® by Novartis - a topical ointment - is a powerful multi-purpose weapon, as it fights pain, infection, and inflammation all at the same time, and all three are present with these large ant bites.
PANOLOG OINTMENT ® contains the antibiotics
neomycin and thiostrepton for broad-spectrum activity against a
wide range of gram-positive and gram-negative bacteria;
and triamcinolone acetonide, a potent synthetic corticosteroid with
anti-inflammatory, anti-pruritic and anti-allergic properties5. Triamcinolone is the most powerful cortisone available in
animal care today. It should therefore be used with caution, and sparingly,
as it has the potential to cause serious damage to the adrenal cortex
gland, with subsequent reduced immune system responses.
RATE (PANOLOG OINTMENT ®):
Caution: as the following medication is a "prescription only" drug, please make sure that you always consult a veterinarian before use. The following rate is a guide only.
ointment sparingly to affected areas, 2-3 times daily (i.e. 12 or 8 hour frequency),
until infection is clearly abating. This medication works fast,
and 2-3 days is usually enough. As always,
your vet should reassess the animal before ceasing treatment.
In extreme cases, your vet may advise the use of, and administer systemic corticosteroids (such as DEXAFORT ® - Dexamethasone) to reduce swelling, and help stabilise the animal's body systems. This extremely powerful drug is administered via intramuscular means, and is long-acting: two to three days.
Caution: do not administer dexamethasone in conjunction with Panolog.
do not administer corticosteroids such as dexamethasone in conjunction with any of the NSAID class of drugs such as Metacam, Rimadyl, or Aspirin.
GREEN TREE ANTS
Green tree ants Oecophylla smaragdina from the sub-family Formicinae, are found in northern Australia, and are included in the same category, as these larger ants are your classic biters and formic acid sprayers. Treatment is therefore the same as above.
A green tree ant from northern Queensland6
These ants are communal aggressive predators, which will both attack and attempt to overwhelm any animal deemed fit to eat, as well as defend their territory from anything and anyone - as many human "intruders" have uncomfortably found out.
The following text is courtesy of Dr. Jon Luly from Townsville.
On the matter of ant bites, we have seen a number of bats that have been attacked by green tree ants. Needless to say, the bats so affected were in poor condition, or were juveniles that had fallen and were in latter stages of dehydration or starvation or both. Green ants are aggressive communal predators and will cover a fallen bat if the opportunity arises. They can affect just about any part of the bat they can get nippers into. Bites seem to develop into scabby lesions and eventually into white spots. On the body, they do not seem to be much of a problem, but on wings, they can form nuclei of infection, and can take a long time to heal. They often seem to leave minor scarring. Bites on and around the eyes can cause ulceration of the cornea. We basically pluck the ants from the bat, and treat affected areas with dilute betadine/chlorhex or whatever. Based on the bites I have had (personally), there does not seem to be any lasting itchiness or irritation from green tree ant bites, so more heroic measures do not seem to be needed.
3. BULLDOG ANTS - ANAPHYLAXIS AND ORGAN FAILURE
Bull, or bulldog ants, are the giants of the ant world. A primitive family of ants which has remained unchanged for millennia. These large ants do not form the giant super colonies of more modern ants, but instead, nest numbers range from just a few, to a few dozen - in many cases, appearing quite solitary. This lack of nest numbers is a good thing, because these ants - which sting, not bite - are really capable of packing a killer punch with just one single sting. This is true envenomation, and extreme allergy and anaphylactic shock (leading to death) are often the order of the day. The following is an extract from Dr. Angela Steenholdt. It is included to illustrate the powerful effect these stings can have on dogs - which may be a hundred times the bodyweight of a young flying-fox.
Bull Ants can be fatal By Dr. Angela Steenholdt of the Greencross Kessels Road Veterinary Hospital, MacGregor
Most dogs that are bitten by an insect or spider will show only local effects: that is tissue swelling at the bite site and some discomfort (just like most humans). Some dogs may have swelling of the face and ears, or hives on the body, if there is an allergic component to the reaction. This sort of reaction is often treated by the veterinarian with no long-term complications to the dog. However, acute renal failure after multiple bull ant bites has been reported in two dogs in The Australian Veterinary Journal in January/ February 2004. The dogs were diagnosed with acute renal failure four days after mass envenomation by bull ants. The bull ant toxin also has effects on the heart and gastrointestinal tract, which can result in serious illness with vomiting, anorexia, depression and seizures. There is no specific anti venom for bull ant envenomation, so treatment by the veterinarian in these severe cases is supportive to minimise the long-term damage to the kidneys, and to support the rest of the organs. There is little you can do to prevent this situation from occurring, however it is an important disease that both clients and veterinarians should be aware of.
- OBSERVED & CLINICAL:
Unlike the smaller biting and stinging ants mentioned above - where diagnosis is easy - as they may be covered in them - a baby flying-fox stung by a bull ant may not be obvious. The stings are defensive, and with no desire to actually eat our grounded baby flying-fox, there is usually no ant in sight. This can make diagnosis extremely difficult. Therefore, we will look at the signs of allergic reaction and/or anaphylaxis which these ants may produce, and treat for that.
Allergic reactions may occur to ant stings, and there are different types of allergic reactions. The stings of jumper
ants for instance, like those of bees and wasps, are very painful. Local swelling is very common, and large local swellings (bordering on the grotesque) can occur; lasting many days. The most serious
reactions are known as generalised allergic reactions, of which the most severe type is called
Anaphylaxis occurs after exposure to an allergen (such as insect sting or
medicine), to which an animal (or person) is already extremely sensitive. It results in potentially life-threatening
obvious signs of pain
difficult, laboured, or noisy breathing - struggling to breathe
swollen face or eyes
swollen tongue and/or throat
general body weakness - lethargic - floppy head and limbs
abdominal pain (scrunched body), nausea, actual vomiting
confusion - disorientated
loss of consciousness
Bearing in mind that just a few bulldog ant stings can kill a large dog, any suspicions must always be diagnosed, with prescribed treatment by your vet.
Anaphylaxis is seriously life-threatening, and if untreated, will often be rapidly fatal. Rapidly, can mean as little as a few minutes. Therefore, veterinary attention must be sought immediately. Veterinary treatment will comprise mostly of:
1. Antihistamine - to block histamine release (Benadryl).
2. Warmed intravenous (IV) or intraperitoneal (IP) fluids to counter shock, and prevent circulatory collapse, and
3. Corticosteroids (such as DEXAFORT ® - Dexamethasone) to help reduce swelling and stabilise body systems.
We must be aware that despite the best veterinary treatment, animals may not survive due to a range of complications ranging from single or multiple organ failure to complete destruction of red blood cells. Generally speaking, the quicker this condition is diagnosed and treated - the better the expected outcome.
EMERGENCY TREATMENT IN THE FIELD:
You are called out to pick up a grounded flying-fox, which presents with some or many of the signs listed above. You are half an hour from your nearest vet and the animal may not have half an hour to live. What can you do? Well, as most carers would be quite capable of carrying out the first two treatments, i.e. administering Benadryl, and IP fluids, this may buy the animal much needed time, and may well be the difference between your animal surviving the trip, or arriving at your vet in a somewhat deceased state (assuming you have Benadryl that is).
4. BEE STINGS
Bee stings are included on this page, because effects and treatment are almost identical to stings from bull ants; namely - the possibility of extreme allergic reaction and/or anaphylaxis. Bee stings are probably very rare in flying-foxes, as bees and large bats work two opposing shifts at pollinating, and are perhaps, far more likely to occur (or at least be noticed by us) in our cages than in the wild population. Having said that, flying-foxes camp in trees, and when those trees just happen to be something like melaleuca in flower, the curious (or just plain unlucky) flying-fox can get stung. If curious (or unlucky), the sting will usually occur on the muzzle or face.
Such stings not only hurt; causing swelling and quite intense pain, but for some individuals, a sting could also cause a deadly allergic reaction to the venom. If such a reaction occurs, these unlucky flying-foxes are unlikely to be found - unless we happen to be walking through the colony that day, so bee stings are just one more thing to be aware of in our cages with flower-festooned browse.
Signs of extreme allergy or anaphylaxis to bee venom are the same as for bull ants - namely:
obvious signs of pain
difficult, laboured, or noisy breathing - may be struggling to breathe
swollen face or eyes
fur will stand up or part over the swollen area
swollen tongue and/or throat
general body weakness - lethargic - floppy head and limbs
abdominal pain (scrunched body), nausea, actual vomiting
confusion - disorientated
loss of consciousness
But with the addition of one other variable, which may make differential diagnosis extremely easy. When bees sting, the stinger remains in place, so - unless our flying-fox has managed to scratch or rub it off, the sting may still be visible.
TREATMENT - IF SINGLE STING AND MINOR SWELLING:
Unlike the bite of some ants, bee sting pain is relatively short lived. Therefore, treatment is easy, and does not take long.
1. If visible and accessible - carefully remove the complete stinger with tweezers. This will stop further envenomation.
3. Apply an ice pack to relieve pain and swelling - alternating on and off the site for a minute or two at the time.
4. Stay with the animal, and monitor closely for around 30 minutes to make sure allergic reaction swelling does not set in; creating any breathing or swallowing difficulties.
With simple bee stings, the animal should visibly be out of pain within 30 minutes or less, and freely able to swallow any offered drinks (give sips only to begin with). If however, large-scale swelling sets in within a few minutes, the animal must be seen by your vet with utmost urgency. See below.
TREATMENT - IF STUNG - WITH MAJOR AND RAPID SWELLING:
In summary, grounded babies being slowly eaten alive by tiny "garden ants" is fairly common, but the prognosis is often very good with a bit of common sense and TLC. Whilst bites and stings from the larger ants (and bee stings) may be less common, affected babies can rapidly deteriorate in a very short space of time indeed. This may well go some way to explaining some mystery babies, which rapidly die soon after intake, and by recognising the signs of allergic reaction and anaphylaxis, we just may be able to save the fortunate few - if we have a good vet, and if we are quick.
27.07.2008 10:46 AM
1. Photo courtesy flagstaffotos.com
2. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.org (open source file).
3 & 4. Photos courtesy of Karen Bishop.
5. Ref: Novartis
6. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.org (open source file).
Refs (numerous): Australian Ants online. Australian National Insect Collection. CSIRO.
Refs (numerous): Judi Wood, Dr. Jon Luly, & Bat World Sanctuary.