YES they sting! But then you already knew that didn’t you? Here are some things we’ve learned being stung ourselves.
First, a disclaimer. We are not doctors or medical professionals nor do we pretend to be.
Before you begin beekeeping we suggest you seek professional medical advice to determine if you are allergic to bee venom (apitoxin). A severe allergic reaction to bee stings, known as anaphylaxis, can be life threatening.
If you keep bees, you will get stung so take the time to understand what your risks are and how to mitigate them.
Why Do Bees Sting?
Honeybees will defend their hives if they feel threatened. Each colony has guard bees that watch over the hive entrance. Their job is to repel intruders: yellow jackets, bees from other colonies…maybe even you. The danger doesn’t have to be real, only perceived.
When a bee stings, pheromones are released alerting others to the perceived danger. One sting can to turn into many in short order as the colony rallies to the defense. A lone sting can be painful; a lot of stings can become a real problem even if you do not have a serious allergy.
Put your bare hand in the wrong place at the wrong time and you might find out about it quickly.
Sometimes a colony can become unusually aggressive. A couple of years ago we had a hive that grew rapidly in its first year. This rapid growth was accompanied by an increase in aggressive behavior. Merely opening the top of the hive would cause about a dozen bees to immediately come at my face and head (a popular attack point). I could hear them banging against my hood. While I explored how to handle this situation (more on it below), I did not venture near the hive without protective gear.
Other conditions can increase the likelihood of a bee stings and aggressive behavior:
- Mishandling the bees causing the release of pheromones
- Lack of a queen…or even a queen with a bad attitude
- Nectar dearth
- Mite infestation
- Robbing of honey stores by other bees, wasps and yellow jackets
What Happens When A Bee Stings?
As a defense, a female bee (male drones have no stinger) may pierce your skin with a barbed stinger injecting apitoxin (honey bee venom). This action also releases pheromones as mentioned above. When the bee attempts to leave, the barb is embedded inside the skin of larger animals (like you and me) and is torn from her body. She is then fatally wounded and unable to sting again. However, more pheromones are released increasing the chances of other bees nailing you too.
Bee Sting Reactions
Reactions to bee stings range from mild to severe. Hopefully, you’ll take our advice and assess the possibility of having a severe reaction. You can find detailed information on bee sting reactions on the Mayo Clinic website.
Melanie tends to have mild reactions to bee stings such as sharp pain where the sting occurs followed by slight swelling, redness and some itching. Her symptoms disappear after a few days.
My reactions tend to be stronger but I have seen them subside during the course of a season (more on that below). When I get stung, the initial pain includes sharp burning at the sting. Typically I experience little swelling until the next day; my area of redness and swelling is much larger than Melanie’s. Along with the swelling comes itching. While Melanie’s swelling may last a few days, mine can last for a week.
The location of the sting for me also seems to impact the amount of swelling with the face being most severe.
A few years ago, I went out to the hives for a “quick peek”. I wore no protective gear. I opened the top of a hive and immediately one of the girls made a bee line (pun intended) and nailed me just above my left eye. The accompanying picture is what I looked like the following day.
I am not going to lie and say I’ve never gone near the bees without a hood since then, but those times have been few and far between.
What To Do When You Get Stung
If you’re like me, the first thing you do is yelp in pain and let out a string of expletives which doesn’t really address the situation.
The next thing is to look for the barb and remove it. You can usually scrape it off with a finger nail or a hive tool or even just pull it out. This may reduce the dose of venom you receive.
Bees can sting through light layers of clothing (I’ve been stung through a sock and a pant leg). Pull the clothing away from your body and the stinger should come with it.
If you’re having a severe reaction such as swelling of the lips and tongue, nausea, dizziness or worse get to an emergency room immediately or take whatever other steps your doctor may have advised.
There are many suggestions around as to how you can mitigate the impact of the sting. I immediately stop what I am doing and head for the Benadryl and Advil. Other suggestions include:
- Ice packs
- Baking soda paste or toothpaste
You’ll get stung and have time to learn what works for you.
How To Avoid Being Stung
There are a number of things you can and should do to reduce the odds of being stung and minimize the impact when it does happen. Here’s a list of main things to consider.
First, do your hive inspections in the middle of the day when a lot of bees are out foraging. A less crowded hive is easier to inspect and you’re less likely to irritate the ones that remain.
Do not stand in front of the hive entrance. Work from the back or the side of the hive. Blocking the entrance will cause the bees to become more defensive of their turf.
Wear protective clothing. Gloves, a bee jacket or suit and a hood or veil greatly reduce the bees’ ability to insert a barb.
For me, the most important protective clothing is the veil as the face and head are main targets for defensive bees. You do not want to be stung on the eye!
Gloves can make it difficult to handle equipment at times and you will inevitably do some work barehanded. Remove any rings if you work without gloves. Had my wedding ring been on when I got this sting on my hand, I probably would have had to get it cut off in a hurry. I take my ring off as a precaution whether I wear gloves or not.
Wear light colors. You’ll notice bee suits are white. The lighter color is not only going to be cooler in the summer, you’ll be less likely to look like a unwelcome bear than if you wore black.
Avoid heavily scented soaps, perfumes, deodorants, shampoos and such. These things may serve to attract the bees and not in a good way.
Work slowly and methodically. Try to avoid jerky movements and swatting at bees that bother you. (Behavior I am still working on). A calmer you often means calmer bees.
Use the smoker judiciously. A little bit of smoke can move bees away from areas you need to work and off to eating some honey.
Can You Build Up Immunity To Bee Stings?
My research and own experience tells me yes, though I know there are some differing opinions on this topic. Those guys you see on YouTube working their bees with little or no protective gear are certainly stung from time to time but seem to have little reaction.
According to this article in New Scientist magazine, a study in Switzerland showed that “high doses of bee venom early in the year block a normally potent immune reaction for the remainder of the season.” As a result, the reaction to the stings becomes muted. This process starts over each spring.
A couple of years ago I got a number of stings early in the season. As the summer progressed, my reaction to stings became less severe with each one. Early in the year the swelling and related symptoms from a sting lasted almost a week. By the end of the season, I was clear of any reaction within a day or two.