Bee Stings from a Beekeeper's Perspective*

What Everyone Needs to Know About Bee Stings

Note: If you are reading this because you were just stung and are having trouble breathing or swallowing, feel nauseous or have
swelling or hives somewhere other than around the sting site, don't waste time reading.  Get medical help ASAP.

Almost all available advice about stings is sensational or emphasizes allergies. Very little of that advice admits that bee stings are pretty insignificant most of the time, causing little more than some excitement and temporary minor pain, or that some people actually seek out bee stings for their beneficial effects. 

Recent work suggest that about 5% of the population are currently allergic to stings to some extent, from minor to serious.  Looking at it the other way, about 95% (that's most of us) are not.  For an in-depth perspective about sting allergies, Here is an article by Eric Mussen with links to a recent scientific study

Here is a beekeeper's personal perspective.  Please read the disclaimer

        Bee Stings     

The normal reaction to a bee sting is a bit of temporary pain at the location of the sting, some itching and some swelling. Some parts of the body are more sensitive than others and swelling is most noticeable on the face.

Bee stings are a normal part of life in the country and a normal part of working with bees.  Many people enjoy bees and consider the occasional sting to be the price we pay for the pleasure of their company, for having them pollinate our food crops and for providing us with honey.

Bee stings are harmless for most people.  Although stings are sometimes painful, they can also be beneficial; bee stings are sometimes deliberately administered in large numbers to treat diseases such as MS and arthritis with good results.

Bees and wasps and hornets are different in the way they sting and the venom they carry.  Hornets and wasps do not leave a stinger behind.  Bees usually leave a visible stinger in the wound and it should be removed by brushing or scraping it off as soon as possible to minimise the amount of venom received.

Removing the stinger as quickly as possible reduces the amount of the venom injected and reduces the effects. Contrary to what is often taught, it has been recently proven that it does not matter how the stinger is removed. Whether the stinger is scraped off or just brushed off, speed is the most important factor in minimizing the effects of a sting. The extra time it takes to carefully scrape the stinger off, instead of simply brushing it off, may actually result in more venom being injected than if the stinger is casually brushed away with a finger.

Stay calm.  Most of the ill effects from normal stinging incidents come from panic in the person being stung and bystanders.  Panic and anxiety multiplies the pain, and can result in serious secondary accidents. Panic by the person stung or those around him/her can produce a systemic reaction in itself. (ref)

As far as anyone can know, the amount of pain experienced after a sting is pretty much the same for everyone, but the amount of itching and swelling depends on the person being stung and how often the person has been stung in the past.  The actual puncture point where the stinger penetrated the skin sometimes festers a little bit and a small pimple on the site is not unusual.  This clears up by itself and is normally no cause for concern.

Although many people make a huge fuss about being stung and recommend many remedies, the simple truth is that the less attention that is paid to a sting, the less painful it is.  Preoccupation with the sting only makes the problem worse.  People accustomed to working with bees do not normally do anything except brush or scratch off  the stinger, unless the sting is in a sensitive area such as near the eye or elsewhere on the face.  If it is, special attention is taken to ensure the stinger is out.

Some parts of the body are more sensitive to stings and each part will respond differently.  The areas near the eyes and lips are particularly prone to swelling, sometimes result in a most comical distortion of the person's appearance.  For students working with beekeepers, this usually happens the day before the Prom.  A sting in the eyeball is not to be desired, but we did have one fellow stung dead centre with no lasting effect -- or pain for that matter.  We rushed him to the doctor and the doctor took a look.  He didn't know exactly what to do either -- other than to extract the remains of the stinger.  Anyhow, nothing came of it.  A sting to the tip of the nose or the ears can bring genuine, heartfelt tears to the eyes of even an experienced beekeeper.  Pain from stings on fatty areas of the body can inspire amazing language from the victim.  Stings in bony points like wrists and ankles can cause some temporary aching, much like arthritis, and as for more private areas, well, the swelling is not quite what some might hope for... Sorry!

Some beekeepers consider stings to be huge joke, but stings should be taken with some seriousness, if at all possible. <G> 

 

      Immunity to Bee Stings     

Seasoned beekeepers experience virtually no reaction to stings and generally ignore occasional stings in their daily work.  Beekeepers still feel the sting the same as anyone else, but since they are not worried about stings, the sensation is soon forgotten.  Normally good beekeepers wear a veil to prevent stings to the face, but work with bare hands and receive occasional stings to the wrists and hands.

People who have never been stung by a bee often have no itching or swelling at first.  After a number of stings most people begin to itch more and swell at the location of the sting.  Sometimes the swelling can be quite extreme (and comical if it occurs on the face), however swelling is a normal reaction in someone who is developing immunity, and only lasts until immunity is developed. 

Immunity to bee stings builds up fairly quickly in most people.  After several weeks of occasional stings, the reactions diminish, itching is no longer a problem, and swelling is much reduced. 

Immunity can fade over periods of time without stings such as over winter.  Some sensitivity is not uncommon for the first few stings after such a period, even for beekeepers with immunity.

 

      Allergy to Bee Stings      

Severe reactions are very rare and although everyone should be aware of the possibility, a bee sting for most normal people is a minor inconvenience and is best ignored and forgotten as quickly as possible.

True allergy to bee stings -- as to practically any substance -- can occur.  As with any allergy, degree of allergy can vary from mild to life-threatening.  People with bee allergies often get over them spontaneously or by seeking treatment from an allergist who specializes in bee stings.

Family members of beekeepers and those who work with bee products are at much higher risk of developing a bee sting allergy than members of the general public, due to low-level exposure to dusts from bees.  For such individuals, getting stung regularly -- once a month? -- is advisable to prevent developing sensitivity.

Reaction to stings can vary in an individual, and a person who has no reaction on one occasion may respond differently at later time.  A serious reaction on one occasion does not guarantee that subsequent stings will cause a crisis.

Some drugs can cause increased sensitivity to stings.  Drugs with names ending in 'phen' are anecdotally implicated.

 

      Doctors and Bee Stings       

Most general practitioners know very little more than the average person on the street about bee sting allergy, but they can definitely save a life in a crisis.  If a crisis situation is suspected no time should be wasted.  Call 9-1-1 and get to a hospital as quickly as possible.  Although most such scares are false alarms, if there is a real anaphylactic reaction, death can occur in a matter of minutes.

It is a generally a waste of time and money to consult a doctor unless a potential life-threatening reaction is suspected, but if there are symptoms besides swelling, itching and minor rash then consulting a doctor may be advisable. Nonetheless, any advice received from anyone but a specialist should be examined with the understanding that many doctors will play it safe and advise staying away from bees, no matter how low the risk, since most people do not see any point in having anything to do with insects anyhow.

Reactions that are cause for concern and for which immediate medical assistance should be sought are any that 

  • cause difficulty breathing, either due to a systemic reaction or swelling of the airways

  • where the reaction to the sting occurs elsewhere on the body than at the sting site

  • or any which cause nausea or general feelings of illness

While any general practitioner or emergency medical team can deal with a medical crisis arising from a sting, many, if not most, are unqualified to provide advice beyond that point.  Bee sting allergy is a very specialized field and even many allergists are actually quite ignorant  about bee sting allergy.  Think twice about the actual necessity of any prescription a doctor may want to write you on your visit.  Many doctors hate to send a patient away with out a prescription for something. Consider how many doctors prescribe antibiotics for a cold. Everyone knows that viruses are not affected by antibiotics, but doctors get a fee for writing prescriptions, and the patient is more likely to go away thinking that he has been helped, so some doctors make a practice of prescribing useless, and possibly harmful, medicine.

 

      Desensitization      

Desensitization is possible for most people who react badly to stings.  Many who have shown signs of bee sting allergy have been able to overcome their problem and resume work with bees.

Consulting a specialist in bee stings is advised for anyone who experiences a bad reaction.  Local beekeeping organizations can usually advise which local allergists have a good understanding of bee allergies and treatment.

New treatments are currently being developed to simplify the desensitization process.

        Summary      

For those of us who love bees and work with them every day that we can, it is sometimes hard to put ourselves in the place of people who have never had that unique pleasure, and have never involved themselves with this amazing part of nature and of life on our planet.

Although beekeepers usually are not concerned about occasional stings they receive, themselves; most beekeepers are understanding and appreciate how terrifying a sting can be to those who have not learned about bees and stings.

Beekeepers try to make sure their bees will not sting neighbours or passersby.  Considering how many beehives and natural swarms can be found in urban areas worldwide, stings to non-beekeepers are very, very few.  

Do consider joining us in learning about and appreciating bees and other insects.

Don't forget that, without bees, we would have much less food on our tables.

 

Join us.  Look around.  Find a beekeeper or government bee agent and get involved in helping bees survive in a hostile world.

 * Important Disclaimer

 This information is personal opinion based on 30 years of experience with bees and believed to be true, however each person and each situation is different.  YMMV.  Use at your own risk.

Readers are cautioned that the author is not a medical authority.  This article is not intended to be a substitute for competent personal professional medical opinion.  Readers are cautioned to seek medical advice if there is any reason to suspect problems with sensitivity before getting into situations where stings are likely. 

Be also aware that diseases, medical conditions personal habits and/or diets and medications, as well as unusual bee colony history may cause unpredictable events.  Although extremely rare, serious and fatal stinging events have been known to occur, even to experienced beekeepers.  Always exercise reasonable caution when approaching or working with bees and have a 'Plan B' at the ready.

Back to top