Bee Stings

By Dr. Loretta Lanphier, ND, CN, HHP, CH

Almost everybody will experience a sting from a bee or wasp from time to time. It is just a risk we take by being outdoors, or indoors sometimes, and inadvertently aggravating these insects or straying too close to their homes. In most cases, stings are annoying and slightly painful, but otherwise not hazardous. The exception is for individuals who are allergic to the venom, and for whom stings can be very dangerous. The other side of the coin is that bees serve a very useful purpose in the ecology of our planet, and in fact the pollination of many of our crops would be impossible without them. Education can go a long way towards avoiding a confrontation with bees, so let’s see what we can learn about them and what steps to take if a sting should occur.

What Constitutes a Bee Sting?

This may sound like a rather ridiculous question, but the answer depends on who you are asking. Officially, bee stings only come from bees, but in the vernacular, the term bee sting may mean a sting from a wasp, (hornet) or any one of several types of bees. For the purposes of this article, we will consider a sting from any of these types of insects. The venom that is injected is similar in all of these stings, although there are some differences in the amount and potency of the toxins that cause a reaction to the stings.

Bees, wasps, and hornets are equipped with a tube-like projection with which they can pierce the skin and inject a venomous poison. These insects, which are all of the hymenoptra family, typically live in colonies, and they most often resort to stinging when defending their home, sometimes called a hive or nest. Their stingers can either be used on other insects, or on any other animal or human that they sense is a threat to their community.

The amount of venom in a sting is enough to kill another insect, but most of the time when people are stung by bees, wasps, or hornets, the result is limited to a localized wound that can be painful, but not dangerous. However, the potential exists for a life-threatening situation if the person stung is allergic to the venom, is stung in a vulnerable area such as the mouth or throat, or if the victim is stung multiple times. Folks who are allergic to bee venom can develop a severe reaction known as insect venom anaphylaxis, which is a true medical emergency and statistically results in an average of 40 fatalities per year in the United States. People who are knowingly allergic to stings often carry an injectable form of antidote to the venom known as epinephrine, a move that can literally save their lives.

What Are the Symptoms of a Sting?

In general, reactions to bee stings are broken down into two categories: Local and systematic (allergic). The majority of individuals who are stung will experience only local symptoms. These include:

  • Redness, swelling, itching, and pain at the site of the sting.
  • If the venom is enough in quantity, or if the sting occurs on sensitive skin, inflammation may spread to about a maximum of 4 inches in diameter.
  • The only time a simple local reaction can be dangerous is if you are stung in an area that can impede your breathing, such as the throat or mouth. Even one sting in a non-allergic person in such a location can cause respiratory distress and develop into an emergency situation.

Most of the time, reactions of this type require little intervention. Use general first aide principles such as keeping the wound clean. Many substances have been suggested as remedies for the pain and itching, including the application of baking soda or another alkaline compounds to balance out the high acidity of the venom. However, one of the best proven ways to get relief is to simply apply ice to deaden the pain and help reduce the swelling.

Systematic or allergic reactions are a much more serious situation. The body can be sent into anaphylactic shock due to an allergy to the venom. Most systematic reactions are of the allergic type. However, systematic symptoms may also occur if a person is stung many times, even if they are not allergic. Signs of a life threatening bee sting include:

  • Hives and / or itching throughout the body, not just at the site of the sting.
  • Swelling of the face, throat, or mouth
  • Difficulty breathing or wheezing.
  • A sudden drop in blood pressure.
  • Chest pain
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Anxiety

Allergic reactions may occur to any one at any time, but most people who develop such serious symptoms have had an allergic reaction to bee stings before, and are aware that it may occur again. They often carry a kit with them that includes an antidote that can be easily injected. It is critical when a person is showing signs of an allergic reaction that they get emergency medical help as soon as possible. Most allergic folks will exhibit symptoms within minutes after being stung, and the majority of fatalities come within an hour or less. One trick that you can use to delay the reaction is to give the victim an antihistamine like Benadryl. On rare occasion, allergic reactions may not occur until several hours after the sting.

The most important thing one can keep in mind when it comes to bee stings is to remove the stinger immediately. This is true for both types of reactions, as studies have shown that getting the stinger out of the skin in a minute or less can significantly reduce the amount of venom injected. There has been some controversy in the past about the best way to remove stingers, but experts now agree that is more important how quickly you remove it than the method you use to do it. Simply plucking it out with your fingers will do fine.

Why Do Bees Sting?

Most bees and their related cousins will not aggressively seek you out to attack you. The vast majority of stings occur when a person either accidentally bothers an insect, by stepping on them for example, or when one gets too close to the nest or hive. These creatures are very territorial, and they take it personally when you violate their comfort zone by trespassing in their immediate neighborhood. Once one of them stings you, the rules of conflict change and they can become very aggressive. When a bee or wasp stings you, certain chemicals called pheromones are released that trigger a response from other members of the community. The alarm has been sounded that there is an intruder in the area, and if you aren’t careful, you may be mobbed by reinforcements and stung multiple times. That is why it is important to leave the immediate area as soon as possible after being stung.

One particular species of bee, the Africanized Honey Bee, or “Killer Bee,” as it is often called, is especially antagonistic. They are known to aggressively attack any animal or person who wanders into their territory. The potency and quantity of their venom is not much different than that of an ordinary honey bee, but as a colony they can inflict serious and sometimes fatal attacks on people. It is estimated that these bees are responsible for 100’s of deaths worldwide, and even a handful here in the United States. They were first developed in the 1950’s by cross-breeding an African honey bee with a European honey bee. This experiment was conducted in Brazil, and once they became established in the wild, they developed their vicious reputation. Since the 1950’s, their geographical range has consistently expanded to the north, and they are now found in the Southern United States.

All insects in this family can sting multiple times, with the exception of the honey bee. They are the only ones that have a barbed stinger that is embedded in your skin. When they leave their stinger behind, it causes a fatal abdomen wound that costs the bee its life. Even other types of bees, like sweat bees or bumble bees have the capability to inflict more than one sting. The only time a honey bee is able to retain his stinger and attack again is when he inserts it into another bee or similar type of insect.

Many bees spend a lot of their time gathering pollen to support the needs of the colony. If they are at work like this, away from the nest, it is not likely that they will sting you unless you startle or disturb them. In most cases, if you leave them alone they will leave you alone. Staying away from areas of known nests and hives is the best preventative measure to avoid being stung.

Are There Other Preventative Measures That Can Be Taken?

Yes, here are a few practical tips for avoiding bee stings:

  • Never harass a colony or purposely go close to the nest.
  • If you are stung, leave the area as soon as possible. The pheromones released by the stinging bee or wasp can summon other members of the colony very quickly.
  • Avoid strong smelling perfumes or colognes, as these may attract bees and wasps.
  • Sweet drinks or sugary foods may do the same.
  • If you need to remove or destroy a nest that is posing a danger, please do not resort to the poisonous chemicals sold in spray cans to take care of it. These will kill the critters, but they are also very toxic to the environment, other animals, and people as well. The best way to destroy a bee hive or wasp’s nest is to burn it if at all possible. Be sure to tackle this project at dusk or after dark, as this is when the inhabitants of the hive are the least active.

As with most issues in nature, it is best to live and let live whenever possible. Do not destroy a colony of bees or wasps unless they put their home in a place that could expose you to harm. These creatures do far more good than harm, and their existence is already at risk from environmental factors such as disease and pesticides or other toxic substances. They are an integral part of the ecological fabric, just as are we. It is best to use common sense to avoid confrontations so that we and they can peacefully coexist.

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