BEWARE OUT THERE : EXAMINING DANGERS IN THE GREAT OUTDOORS

Summer is the season of sun and fun. But it's also the season for bee stings, poison oak and snake bites.

Each summer day, the Los Angeles County Regional Poison Control Center receives about 20 spider bite calls and 10 to 15 inquiries about bee and wasp stings. Once a week an inquiry is made about rattlesnakes. Last year, the center confirmed 20 black widow spider bites.

"Black widows don't walk across the floor or get in your bed," said Dr. Greg Thompson, the center's director. "You've got to reach into their area."

Other good news: Although many people believe the highly poisonous brown recluse spider lives in Southern California, it really doesn't.

The rule of thumb with poisonous critters is to be aware of your surroundings and learn to identify the creatures. If you leave them alone, they will generally leave you alone. But strange encounters do occur. Although most snake encounters happen outdoors, a Leona Valley man was seriously injured last month when he poked his head through a trapdoor in his attic and was bitten by a rattlesnake.

Black Widow Spider

Latrodectus mactans

Female black widows are more aggressive and venomous than their male counterparts. The venom toxicity of the female is greatest in the warm months.

* Identification: Female black widows are nearly half an inch long, with the distinctive red hourglass pattern on the belly. Male black widows are slightly smaller, with red and white markings on the sides. Their young, which are also poisonous, are brown with pink markings.

* Habitat: Sheltered dark places, such as brush piles, hollow stumps, outhouses and garages.

* Symptoms of a bite: Muscle spasms and cramps within an hour of bite. Severe reactions include tingling and burning sensations, headache, dizziness, vomiting and difficulty breathing. Symptons usually dissipate within 48 hours. Bites are rarely fatal.

* Treatment: Place ice bag on the wound and keep victim calm. Seek medical treatment.

Honeybee

Apis mellifera

Walkers should avoid wearing bright colors when treading in bee territory and carry a bee-sting kit if allergic to them. Bees can only sting once, since they die afterward.

* Identification: Workers are up to half an inch long, with hairy, brownish thorax and orange and black banded abdomen. Queen is larger and rarely seen.

* Habitat: Crop lands, orchards, gardens, fields, woodlands.

* Symptoms of a sting: Pain and swelling with most people. Signs of an allergic reaction include excessive swelling, difficulty breathing and red lines running alongside of the sting.

* Treatment: Remove stinger by scraping the area with a flat edge, such as a credit card or matchbook, wash area well and apply an ice pack. Those who are allergic should seek medical attention.

Poison Oak

Toxicodendron diversilobum

And if crawly things and snakes aren't enough, there's poison oak. Those who venture into the back country should wear long sleeves and pants and learn how to identify this plant.

* Identification: Stands 4r to eight feet tall, though it grows like a vine, twining 15 to 20 feet up a tree trunk. Green leaves turn red in the fall. During the winter, plant has no leaves but is still poisonous.

* Habitat: Moist, shaded areas.

* Symptoms of contact: Red rash with blisters.

* Treatment: Wash area with strong soap and cold water within two hours of contact. Calamine lotion is among the over-the-counter products available to give relief. Seek medical attention if inflammation is excessive.

Western Black-Legged Tick

Ixodes pacificus

Ticks found locally can transmit Lyme disease, which gets its name from Old Lyme, Conn., where it was first described in 1975. California reported 1,780 Lyme disease cases to the Centers for Disease Control from 1984-93, the sixth-highest number in the country. People in the outdoors should wear light-colored clothing and regularly check themselves and their pets for ticks.

* Identification: Dull, reddish-brown body one-eighth-inch long with dark legs and prominent mouth parts. Most active from May to October.

* Habitat: Shrubs, plant stems.

* Symptoms of a bite: In case of Lyme disease, rash or lesion that develops a few days to a few weeks after a bite. Flu-like symptoms may also appear, including a stiff neck, chills, fever, sore throat, headaches, fatigue and joint pain.

* Treatment: Seek medical attention. If left alone, the symptoms may disappear, but worse problems like arthritis or meningitis may follow.

Yellow Jacket

Vespula

One of the most aggressive and vicious stinging insects, yellow jackets can cruise at 12 m.p.h., about the speed of a honeybee. An estimated 15 to 20 people die each year in the United States as a result of stings by wasps and bees.

* Identification: Workers are about a half-inch long with distinctive yellow and black banded abdomen and dark wings. (Some species marked by black and white.) Queens, most likely to be sighted in the early spring, are larger than workers.

* Habitat: Paper nests constructed underground, although sometimes built in a hollow trunk, attic, thick bush or tree branches.

* Symptoms of a sting: Pain, swelling with most people. Allergic reactions are same as a bee sting.

* Treatment: Same as a bee sting, however no stinger is left behind. Wasps can sting more than once.

Southern Pacific Rattlesnake

Crotalus viridis helleri

April to October is snake season, when rattlers are most likely to be seen sunning themselves on a road or a rock. Hikers should wear boots when walking in tall grass. If you to see one, leave it alone. The Mojave green, found in the Antelope Valley, is considered among the world's most poisonous rattlers.

* Identification: Up to nearly 5 1/2 feet long, brownish blotches down the back, generally edged with dark brown or black, often surrounded by light border.

* Habitat: Holes in the ground, rocky crevices, also under bushes.

* Symptoms of a bite: Localized pain and swelling that may spread to a whole limb. Moderate bites bring nausea, vomiting and tingling. Serious bites may result in shock, coma, paralysis and death.

* Treatment: Splint bitten limb and keep victim calm. Do not suck out the venom. Call for medical help.

Questions about poisonous animals, insects, spiders or plants?

The Los Angeles Regional Poison Control Center at (800) 777-6476 is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week to answer questions. Experts are available to assist doctors free of charge.

Sources: National Park Service, The Audubon Society Pocket Guides: Familiar Insects and Spiders, Mountaineering First Aid, Zoo Books, Encyclopedia Americana and World Book; Researched by STEPHANIE STASSEL/Los Angeles Times

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