Now that we are shaking off our cabin fever from the winter and spending more time outside (the smell of grills filled my neighborhood this past weekend), it’s time to think about bees again. Specifically, bee stings.
As we enjoy more weekend afternoons at the park and restaurants bust out their patio furniture our interactions with local bees increase. Whether you have a hive or not, the buzz of bees becomes part of the soundtrack of our outdoor adventures. Let’s face it, nobody likes to be stung by bees, but it’s a part of life for most of us.
There’s a saying, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” and we definitely believe it helps to bee prepared. While bee stings can be painful, there are steps you can take to prevent them from happening and minimize the impact if they do.
Since bees love math just as much as us, let’s dig into some statistics to discuss whether you should be concerned about bee stings or not (hint: there’s no need to panic).
Bee stings are common. Most beekeepers have experienced a handful or two at least throughout their time caring for their bees. While unpleasant, bee stings are not typically a cause for concern and don’t have lasting effects unless you have a bee allergy. Though, bee allergies are not super common themselves. In fact, only about 1-7% of the general population have insect sting allergies.
However, significantly more men than women die from bee stings. Now, I’m not here to surmise why that could be, with slower frontal lobe development and generally higher risk-taking behaviors you can only imagine why this discrepancy exists. Who knows?
Either way, men make up about 80% of the 90-100 deaths that occur from bee stings every year in the United States. While the loss of any life can be heartbreaking for the loved ones left behind, we could hardly say deaths from bee stings are common.
With access to Epi-pens and medical facilities with trained staff and resources to treat allergic reactions, bee stings are of no major concern for the general population. But, if you’ve been stung by a bee, you might wonder why it can feel like such a big deal to you.
Honey bees don’t typically sting indiscriminately. They sting when they feel threatened and it’s the venom in the stinger that causes the pain we experience. There are three distinct parts of their physiology that contribute to the bee’s ability to sting:
The piercing part has a stylet and lancets, which are covered with tetrahedron-shaped barbs. Even though some people believe worker bees die immediately, they can actually survive for 18-114 hours after they sting. The motor part involves associated muscles the bee uses to perform the act of stinging. With stinger itself, as long it remains embedded in the skin, will continue to deliver venom. This is why it’s essential to remove the stinger if you are able.
The venom in a bee’s sting contains melittin, which comprises 50-60% of the stuff and accounts for its toxicity. To clarify, melittin only causes minor allergic reactions but is the main cause of any pain you might feel when you’re stung.
Okay, so if you do get stung, what should you expect?
Bee stings can cause a local or systemic reaction. Local reactions are more common and include swelling, redness, and pain near the area where you sustain a sting. Conversely, systemic reactions involve multiple body systems. Symptoms to look for include:
Any of these symptoms could indicate the onset of an allergic reaction and would necessitate further medical care. Different people can react differently to stings, with some people experiencing more redness and swelling than others. A more intense local reaction doesn’t necessarily predispose somebody to a systemic reaction, nor does multiple stings, but if somebody has a systemic reaction they are more likely to have additional systemic reactions.
So, if you aren’t experiencing a systemic reaction and don’t need to get to a medical facility, what can you do to minimize any misery?
If you sustain a bee sting, there’s no need to panic. If you’re in the vicinity of a hive or see other bees around, quickly take a step (or 20) back; the bees release alarm pheromones that can attract other bees to the area.
The next step is to look at the area where you were stung and see if you can identify the stinger. If you can, scrape the stinger out rather than squeezing and pulling. If you squeeze the stinger it can release more venom into your skin and exacerbate your symptoms. You can always use the side of a credit card to scrape the stinger out of your skin.
Pain may set in immediately, but any swelling or redness may take a few minutes. As soon as you are able, get yourself an ice pack and place it on the affected area. This can reduce swelling and soothe the pain.
If the pain is significant, a topical anti-itch cream can help because it contains an antihistamine and a steroid. Histamine release is part of the process of inflammation (which stings cause); the antihistamine can work to neutralize some of these effects. Steroids can reduce pain.
You may have heard of some alternative remedies and as you can guess, there’s not a lot of research behind the more commonly known ones. Well, there hasn’t been a lot of funding to support that research, but many of these treatments carry a low risk, so you can feel free to give them a try.
Here are the most common ones:
Some people report using tea tree, witch hazel, lavender, thyme, and rosemary essential oils to get relief from the pain of a bee sting. If you do go this route, be sure to dilute essential oils in a carrier oil as they are extremely concentrated in their pure form and can cause skin reactions in some people.
There’s no research behind this either, but I know that my mother kept an aloe plant when I was a child and whenever I got a sunburn, the cut end of an aloe leaf was instant relief.
Another favorite of moms in the ’90s, calamine lotion can reduce pain and itching. It’s a beautiful dusty pink color (not) and while it looks kind of like Pepto Bismol, it’s not edible. Use it on your skin only.
Yes! Honey can reduce inflammation, so slather on the good stuff if you get a sting. However, bees can smell the honey, so if you do opt for this treatment, make sure you apply it while indoors and away from the bees.
Bee stings can happen, but there are steps you can take to care for yourself if you find yourself on the wrong side of a bee. As long as you are cognizant of your surroundings and do your best to minimize any behavior that bees could perceive as threatening, you should be in the clear.
Threatening behaviors can range from kicking a hive (don’t. Just don’t) to aggressing trudging through bee forage. If you know you’re going to be near a hive, avoid wearing perfumes or bright colors that might attract the bees.
Remember, bees aren’t trying to be malicious if they sting you, though I can’t vouch for the intentions of wasps and hornets. Bees are just trying to protect themselves and their hive. I think we all can respect that.