What to do if you are allergic to bee stings

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The fear of bees is a common phenomenon. Bees don’t give people the same squeamish sensation that spiders and snakes do, but the thought of being stung can really throw someone into a frenzied panic. It’s understandable, and there is a good reason beekeepers wear bee suits. The introduction of Africanized bees and the over-the-top movies about them also adds to the overwhelming fear of bees. On top of that, beestings burn like a cigarette held to your skin, and there is usually some swelling and discomfort for hours or days afterward. I know, because I’ve been stung probably 100 times, and it never feels good.

Morbi vitae purus dictum, ultrices tellus in, gravida lectus.

BEES

BEE STING

ALLERGY

APIPHOBIA

Beekeepers are told all the time about someone who is allergic to bees—or bee stings. In fact, it can sometimes feel like everyone is allergic to bees. Neighbors who don’t want us to have bees are ALWAYS highly allergic. Then there is the person who has a swarm in their tree and needs it gone for free because their child is deathly allergic to bees, or the apartment manager whose tenant wants the bees in the valve box killed because they are allergic to bees. With so many occurrences of deathly bee allergies, I needed to look into this for myself. What I found was very interesting.

How Common are Bee Allergies?

My goal of this article is two-fold: 1. to shed light on the actual probability of someone having a bee allergy, and 2. to alleviate the fear and uncertainty surrounding bee stings. There are almost no bee-sting deaths among children even if they have an allergy to bees.

It is estimated that a person in the United States will have 1-2 bee stings in their lifetime. Of course, where you live and what you do for a profession should be factored in. If you are a landscaper vs. an office worker, then your chances are different. For the sake of comparison I thought I would offer some statistics of accidental deaths from doing rather common activities in the United States.

  • 62 dog bite deaths in 2022
  • 31,785 car accident deaths in 2022
  • 4,963 choking deaths in 2022
  • 120-150 deaths per year from hiking accidents
  • 4,000 deaths by drowning, on average per year
  • 89 deaths from Hymenoptera (bee, wasp, ant, hornet) stings in 2017 (couldn’t find data for 2022)

Considering the numbers here, it is very unlikely that someone will die from a bee sting. In fact, it is not even known if the deaths from Hymenoptera stings were from bees, ants, wasps or hornets because it is usually not stated. Also, an allergy to one species of Hymenoptera does not mean you are allergic to any other species (ex. an ant allergy does not mean you have a bee allergy). That is very good to know! It is also important to note that allergies to stings is not hereditary, so if your mother or father was allergic, it does not mean that you are.

cricket with veil and bees

Bee Sting Reactions

Your immune system is there to protect your body by reacting to triggers, called allergens. When you are stung by an insect like a bee or a mosquito your body reacts to the venom. “Stings and bites often hurt and can cause minor redness and itching at the site, but these symptoms are not caused by an allergic reaction” – betterhealth.vic.gov.au. This is important to note because it shouldn’t be a cause for concern when you feel your skin reacting to a bee sting. If your body does respond to the sting by causing histamines to be released, it is only doing its job. There are three kinds or levels of allergic reactions to bee stings according to many medical sources, including Mayo Clinic, the CDC, and the National Library of Medicine.

These are

  • Mild, Local
  • Moderate, Generalized
  • Severe, Systemic

Mild, Generalized Allergic Reaction

  • Instant, sharp burning pain at the sting site. Different parts of the body will hurt more than others. Read about the Schmidt Sting Pain Index to learn more.
  • A red welt at the sting area (the stinger may still be embedded in the skin, so remove it quickly)
  • Slight swelling around the sting area. Certain parts of the body will swell more than others. Stings to my wrists and face will swell much more than other parts of my body.

In most people, the swelling and pain go away within a few hours.

Treatment for Mild  Reactions

  • Anti-itch ointments
  • Honey with a bandage
  • Meat tenderizer
  • Ice pack
  • Sting Relief pads

Moderate, Generalized Allergic Reaction

Moderate reactions can simply be more intense, longer lasting, or include other parts of the body. Examples are:

  • Extreme redness at the sting site
  • Swelling at the site of the sting that gradually enlarges over the next day or two
  • Hives or rash on other parts of the body

These reactions can last five to 10 days. Having a moderate reaction doesn’t mean you’ll have a severe allergic reaction the next time you’re stung. If you have any fears surrounding this you can simply see your doctor to have an allergy test. Keep in mind, that most people are only stung 1-2 times in their life. My reactions to bee stings diminished greatly after the first two years. I almost never swell anymore, and I used to be awful.

Treatment for Moderate Reactions

  • Oral antihistamines like Benedryl or Loratadine
  • Anti-itch ointment
  • Pain relievers
  • Sting-site application of honey or other ointment
  • Ice pack

Severe, Systemic Allergic Reaction

Severe, Systemic Allergic reactions, called anaphylaxis are very rare, but can be fatal. It is vital that you react quickly to any of the following symptoms by calling 911 immediately.

Symptoms of a severe allergic reaction include:

  • difficult or noisy breathing
  • swelling of the tongue
  • swelling or tightness of the throat
  • difficulty talking or hoarse voice
  • wheezing or coughing
  • persistent dizziness or collapse
  • paleness and floppiness in young children.

Milder allergic symptoms that can occur before a severe allergic reaction include:

  • swelling of the lips, face and eyes
  • hives or welts
  • tingling mouth
  • abdominal pain, vomiting 

If you experience mild forms of the above reactions, a second sting by a bee, even years later, could cause anaphylaxis. It is wise to see a doctor for an allergy test and to be prescribed an epi-pen to be carried with you at all times. 

Emergency Response to Severe Allergic Reaction

  • Always dial 911 first to call an ambulance in a medical emergency.
  • Administer adrenaline with an injector (EpiPen®)
  • Administer oral antihistamine like Bendedryl if you don’t have an EpiPen
  • Don’t allow the patient to stand or walk.
  • Consider having jewelry or a tag like THIS on your bag where you carry your epipen.

Consider Immunotherapy

If you’ve had a serious reaction to a bee sting or multiple stings, ask your doctor to refer you to an allergist for allergy testing. It is possible that allergy shots (immunotherapy) can help you to reduce or eliminate your severe response to bee stings.

Multiple Bee Stings

Honeybees are generally not aggressive, and only sting in self defense. In fact, bees will die when they sting you so it is usually in their best interest to NOT sting you. Bees can feel threatened when you flap your arms at them, step on them, or try to swat them. They also become defensive when they feel their hive is threatened. Africanized honeybees are much more defensive than European honeybees. Loud noises, vibrations, and bumping the hive can initiate the bee’s defensive behavior and cause attacks sometimes.

If you get stung more than a dozen times, the accumulation of venom may induce a toxic reaction and make you feel quite sick. Signs and symptoms include:

  • Nausea, vomiting or diarrhea
  • Headache
  • A feeling of spinning (vertigo)
  • Convulsions
  • Fever
  • Dizziness or fainting

Multiple stings can be a medical emergency in children, older adults, and people who have heart or breathing problems. Please see a doctor if you experience the above reactions to multiple bee stings.

queen bee on comb

Be Thankful that Honeybees Sting

Honeybees have been a part of human history for thousands of years. We have used their beeswax, honey, and propolis to light our world, heal our bodies, and so much more. In fact, I would say that without bees, we would not even be here because of the essential need for pollination. It takes millions upon millions of bees working constantly throughout the world to ensure that the next generation of flowering plants exists.

What if bees didn’t sting?

The average lifespan of a worker honeybee is only 6 weeks. The queen must lay thousands of eggs each day to replace each generation of bee that passes. These eggs are laid in a nest surrounded by honey. Considering how much humans and animals love honey and go to extreme ends to collect it for themselves, how likely is it that unprotected honeybee hives would be ravaged with abandon? I believe that without stingers to defend their precious nests, honeybees would have become extinct long ago, and us with them. Their sting is their protection, not for themselves, but for their colony and our world.

A honeybee stings to protect its hive, and through that, our world. Don’t fear the sting.

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