When the grass is green and the trees are full of leaves, it makes the whole world seem more alive. But when we head outside to enjoy the season, we're met with more than verdant fields and canopies of leaves.
“In Oklahoma, bugs are just a fact of life,” said Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation President Stephen Prescott, M.D., a physician and medical researcher. “And some of us have more trouble with them than others.”
Out for a picnic? Then you're likely to encounter mosquitoes.
But even though you're in the same place, your friends might not be dive-bombed by those bloodsuckers because of body chemistry.
“Mosquitoes find us by our smell and by our body heat,” he said. “The biggest trigger is carbon dioxide, which is why larger people or active people are so often targeted.”
Why do they bite? It's not for dinner, but for procreation.
Female mosquitoes are the only ones who bite, and they do it to get the necessary protein from human blood so they can lay eggs.
The itching sensation comes from mosquito saliva, Prescott said. It contains an anticoagulant — so the blood doesn't clot once they suck it up — which is left behind after the bite.
The human immune system, sensing something wrong, attacks proteins in the saliva, causing inflammation in the surrounding tissues. It usually takes about a week for them to go away.
“Mosquito bites are annoying, but bee stings really cause a panic,” he said. “Not only do they hurt, but in some cases, people have a severe allergic reaction that, untreated, could prove deadly.”
Again, the female of the species is the dangerous one. Male bees don't have stingers, because they're actually modified egg depositors.
“The stinger seems scary, but it's what's inside the bee that is most dangerous,” he said. “Inside the abdomen is a venom sac, filled with a liquid that is deadly to human cells.”
When a bee stings, it pumps venom through the stinger and into the skin, using a blend of peptides and enzymes that target the layer of fat lining cells. Bee venom also kills mast cells — a type of immune cell — which releases histamine into the system. In people with bee sting allergies, the immune system overreacts, causing swelling and a sudden drop in blood pressure. That means cells aren't getting enough oxygen.
“Worse still, when bees attack, they release pheromones instructing other bees to sting, which multiplies the problem,” Prescott said.
Multiplication also occurs in the tall grass and wooded areas of Oklahoma. Conditions are ripe for an increase in ticks, which attach to humans and animals and feed off their blood.
“Ticks can carry many diseases concurrently,” Prescott said. “Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, Colorado tick fever — all are problems on their own but can combine for an even more potent illness.”
Because ticks like to bore down into the skin, removal is more difficult than just swatting them away. If removed incorrectly, the tick's head may remain embedded in the skin. Left untreated, infections can occur.
Prescott said that since both ticks and mosquitoes are attracted to us by scent, using an insect repellent with DEET can be effective and safe. Bees are easier to deal with, because they usually don't attack unless they or their hive are threatened. Give them a wide berth, and you should be safe, he said.
“Nobody enjoys dealing with these pests, but in a few months, the cold will come back and kill them off,” he said. “Of course by then, we'll all be complaining about how chilly we are and wishing the warmer temperatures would return — even if they bring the bugs back with them.”