Insect-Induced Alopecia: A Study of Tick, Ant and Bee Incidents

Hair loss or alopecia is a common dermatological problem with diverse etiologies, including genetic, hormonal, nutritional, and immune disorders. However, less commonly acknowledged are instances of insect-induced alopecia resulting from tick and ant bites, and bee stings. This article aims to explore these infrequent but intriguing occurrences, reviewing reported phenomena and scrutinizing the underlying mechanisms behind such hair loss.

Tick Bite Alopecia: Ticks are hematophagous arthropods known to elicit a wide range of skin reactions due to their bites, with certain peculiar reactions, including alopecia-areata–like patches of hair loss, noted more frequently. Hard ticks belonging to the Ixodes, Rhipicephalus, Hyalomma, and Dermacentor genera are known offenders that cause local hair loss. This occurrence, known as tick bite alopecia, is believed to arise from a potent host response to the tick-injected saliva. As the ticks bite into the skin, they secrete saliva loaded with anticoagulant, anti-inflammatory, and immunomodulatory chemicals. For some people, this chemical mix can promote a very strong reaction by their immune system.

The clinical manifestation of this non-scarring form of alopecia often takes the form of “moth-eaten” patches, sometimes accompanied by erythema and scale of the skin in the hair loss regions. Occasionally, nodular, blood-crusted lesions may present, with patients reporting symptoms such as pain, pruritus, or swelling. Notably, the history of a tick bite in the affected area is common, but not absolute. The hair loss may be temporary or long-lasting, with reports suggesting regrowth within 3 months in most cases but alopecia persisting for up to 5 years in rare cases.

On the histological level, looking inside the skin, this non-scarring alopecia presents as a dense pseudolymphomatous perifollicular infiltrate with occasional germinal center formation and loss of anagen stage hair follicles. This intense inflammation disrupts normal hair growth, causing miniaturization and an increase in catagen and telogen counts. The existence of both scarring and non-scarring forms of tick bite-induced alopecia reinforces the need for awareness and timely therapeutic intervention.

Ant-induced Alopecia: In an unusual turn of events, localized scalp hair loss has also been reported due to Pheidole ants, predominantly major worker ants or “soldiers”. The sudden onset of hair loss, typically detected by patients as a mass of hair on their pillow or bed linen upon awakening, characterizes these instances. Mild erythema and signs of excoriation may accompany this hair loss, with patients reporting mild to moderate pruritus.

Pheidole ants, constituting the second-largest ant genus globally, exhibit diverse behaviors depending on their geographical and climatic conditions. The cause for their invasive behavior leading to alopecia remains elusive, but it is not unusual for ants to migrate over long distances. Their motivation for cutting hair, whether for nutritional purposes or nest-building, continues to be a mystery, awaiting elucidation through dedicated entomological research.

The precise mechanisms by which these ants separate hair from the scalp remain ambiguous. Their powerful mandibles could be responsible, with a mechanical sawing action, or possibly they release a chemical substance that dissolves the hair before it is mechanically cut. Considering these small organisms are known to successfully dissect much harder food particles, it isn’t surprising they can cut human hair.

The diagnosis of ant-induced alopecia requires a careful elimination of other conditions that might cause localized hair loss, such as alopecia areata, tinea capitis (ringworm), and trichotillomania. The peculiar patterns of sudden overnight hair loss, the absence of other indicative symptoms such as scaling and crusting, and the presence of ants on the scalp and bed linen can help to establish this diagnosis.

Bee Sting Induced Alopecia: One unusual case has been presented where a series of honeybee stings resulted in diffuse hair loss about four months after the incident. An individual was swarmed by honeybees in a forest. The bees, described as numbering in the ‘thousands’, attacked, stinging exposed body parts, including the scalp, face, neck, upper trunk, forearms, hands, and legs. The individual fell unconscious and was rushed to the hospital with severe anaphylactic shock. Intense medical intervention including intravenous fluids, epinephrine, and corticosteroids followed.

About 4 months after this experience, the individual reported a general thinning of hair across the scalp. They specifically noted that the hair would easily detach from the roots during daily activities such as washing and combing. The patient’s experience of diffuse hair shedding without any apparent baldness, a trichogram indicating a telogen count exceeding 30%, and the timeline associating the hair loss with the bee sting event, all pointed towards a diagnosis of telogen effluvium.

Telogen effluvium is a non-inflammatory hair condition. It is typically triggered by a stressful event (e.g., surgery, childbirth, bleeding, fever, extreme dieting, drugs, tension, emotional stress). These stressful events can cause changes in hormones, or deficiencies in vitamins and minerals, that have an affect on hair growth. These systemic changes reach the hair follicles via the blood and can precipitate a shift from the anagen phase of hair growth to the catagen and telogen phases.

The venom of a honeybee comprises various compounds such as histamine, mast cell degranulating peptide, melittin, phospholipase A, hyaluronidase, and acid phosphatase among other chemicals. In this case, the multiple bee stings causing severe anaphylactic shock clearly constitute a stress event. However, the potential build-up of harmful substances from the honeybee venom in the patient’s body could also be a direct contributing factor to the hair loss.

Conclusion: In conclusion, tick, ant and bee-induced alopecia are fascinating examples of the vast range of alopecia causes. Despite the rarity of these instances, their existence underlines the significance of comprehensive patient history and meticulous clinical examination in diagnosing and treating hair loss. Future research should aim to decode the underlying mechanisms and the precise species-specific behaviors of these insects, paving the way for improved dermatological care


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