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A Beekeeper's Guide to Bee Stings

When people find out that you’re a beekeeper, one of the most common questions you’ll find yourself answering is how often you get stung. And if you’ve been beekeeping for any substantial amount of time, your answer probably won’t be “never”. While bees are, at least most of the time, of a peaceful nature, this built-in defense mechanism – especially when you’re dealing with a hive of tens of thousands of honey bees – is something a beekeeper will need to contend with on an ongoing basis.

From bee suits to bee behavior, in this article we’ll look at bee stings and how to approach the possibility of stings when it comes to your bees.

Bee stinger

Bee Stings and the Beekeeper

There aren’t many guarantees when it comes to keeping bees, but eventually getting stung is one of them. While this risk can be mitigated and you may even be able to go months or years without a sting, it’s something you should always be prepared for.

For most, a bee sting is an issue of minor discomfort – some initial pain from the sting, with some swelling of the local area and itching to follow for a few days or even up to a week or two. Enough however, for the bees to get their point across and to make you exercise a little more caution the next time you head out to your apiary.

For others however, bee stings have the potential to cause a systematic allergic reaction that can be a serious health concern and require immediate medical attention. As a beekeeper this is something you must be aware of, not only in regards to your own health but also regarding others who may be in close proximity to your bees.

Bee stinging

Another thing to be aware of is that reactions to bee stings can change over time. Many beekeepers report that getting stung somewhat regularly will lessen the negative effects of a sting – in essence they become used to it. However, on the other hand others say that bee sting allergies can develop over time from being stung too much.

There isn’t a black and white answer here, and everyone reacts to stings a bit differently. This creates a fence with two sides of beekeepers, and the science here is complex and best discussed with an allergist and/or medical professional.

While the great majority of people experience minor symptoms from bee stings, some people are severely allergic to stings, and for these people a bee sting has the potential to cause anaphylactic shock – when the symptoms of a sting spread not only from the immediate area of the sting but begin to affect other parts of the body as well. Breathing is typically the most critical concern, and use of an EpiPen and immediate emergency medical care is required in these cases.

Why Bees Sting

Bees typically sting as a means of defending their hive. Less typically, a bee will sting in an effort to defend itself if attacked while out foraging and away from the colony, but this is rarer. Generally, bees are not inclined to sting – they much prefer to go about their business. In fact, some people attempt to get stung on purpose – either by undergoing bee venom therapy or those beekeepers that subscribe to the belief that getting stung regularly is a good thing.

Even if you’ve caught a bee and are trying to get it to sting you on purpose – it can be tough! The bee mostly just wants to get away and head back to the hive. Additionally, stinging a person is nearly always fatal for the bee, as their barbed stinger sticks in skin, damaging the bee itself as it pulls away.

Storing copious amounts of honey, bees have to defend a hive from all sorts of intruders – from wasps to bears and everything in between. When alarm pheromones are released, more and more bees come to help and one sting – not to mention many stings when a full hive of bees becomes defensive, is of a sufficient deterrent to keep the hive safe. It is this defensive nature that a beekeeper needs to be aware of.

But not all honey bees can sting. Drones (the male bees of a colony) do not have a stinger. Worker bees are the primary concern, as they are the main defenders of the hive with their barbed stingers. The queen – who does have a stinger – has a non-barbed stinger that is typically used only against other queens in the hive. Other queens aside, queen bees like to mind their own business and are usually not inclined to sting people.

Bees will become defensive if they’ve recently been disturbed, during bad weather, or by beekeepers who might be rushing and accidentally drop a frame or are rough with a box. Bees will also be more defensive if there’s a dearth (lack of a nectar flow). The mood of the bees will vary depending on their genetics, the weather, and the time of the year.

How Bee Stings Do Their Damage

We all know a bee sting can be a painful experience, but what makes it so? And what makes the resulting area react with swelling and itching in the manner it does? To start, a honeybee’s stinger causes an initial sensation by piercing your skin. However, at just about 1.5mm in length it is not the wound itself that causes the most pain.

As a worker bee’s stinger is barbed, once in your skin it sticks, while the attached venom sack starts pumping honeybee venom into the wound. This venom, or Apitoxin, is composed of many components and compounds – one of which is melittin, which activates pain receptor cells and is the main pain-causing component of honeybee venom.

Even after the bee leaves, the still-embedded stinger (with attached venom sack) will continue to pump venom into your skin until the stinger is removed. Once injected, bee venom gets to work at a cellular level, destroying cells and causing the body to release histamine, resulting in swelling and itching around the immediate area of the sting.

Avoiding Bee Stings

Beekeepers can go years without getting stung, and using a combination of protective gear, a smoker, and approaching your apiary with care will go a long way towards avoiding and limiting the potential for stings. The first thing to understand is that – like people – bees can be moody. Perform inspections in pleasant weather – pleasant for you is generally pleasant for the bees.

Using your smoker will help to calm your bees, and can help when the bees do begin to become agitated , helping to keep the hive from crossing that fine line between agitated and “on attack”. Once that line is crossed it is typically too late to calm them back down. In these cases, it may be best to let the bees be, and try again another day.

Protective clothing is your last resort against stings. Bees will usually go after the head area first, and a bee stuck in your hair, trying to burrow down to sting your scalp is a situation most beekeepers don’t like to repeat. Additionally, stings to the head usually result in the worst reactions. With this in mind, a veil is usually suggested as a minimum level of protection.

Going one step further, a bee jacket and gloves offer full upper body protection, with a full suit offering the greatest level of protection. No single protective clothing approach is better than the other, with each strategy offering pros and cons. And no matter which option you go with, keep in mind that protective clothing is sting-resistant, and not sting-proof. Bees are also particularly skilled at finding any square inch in your armor that may be a potential weak point.

Working your bees with a calm, slow-and-steady attitude / approach is also important. In most cases, honeybees are surprisingly tolerant of an inspection that is performed with care. However, they are very intolerant of being knocked around, having frames dropped, rough handling of boxes, etc.

How To Treat Bee Stings

Despite a beekeeper’s best efforts however, sometimes stings do happen. Due to the release of alarm pheromones, the more stings you take the more the bees will become agitated, and things can quickly spiral into a difficult situation.

When stung, remain calm and put some distance between yourself and the hive to prevent getting stung again. If you can, remove the stinger during your retreat to prevent more venom from being pumped into your skin. If you can’t get the stinger out as you walk, you’ll need to get far enough away to a safe area (far enough that bees stop following you), where you can safely remove the stinger.

Bees fly pretty fast – up to 18mph – and most of us won’t be able to outrun them at this speed, especially if wearing a full bee suit! However, usually once you’re some distance from the hive bees will stop following you and by staying still after you’ve created some space between yourself and the apiary, the few remaining stragglers will typically leave and head back to the hive after a few minutes.

The colony will now be on high alert – likely for the rest of the day. At this point it is usually best to get yourself stabilized, put on more protective clothing, make sure your smoker is lit, and head back and make sure the hive is at least put back together appropriately. If you are worried or tend to have more severe reactions to stings, taking an antihistamine such as Benadryl can be helpful.

Once you and your apiary are stabilized, you can start a longer-term treatment plan for your sting. Washing the area with soap and water is advised just to make sure it’s clean. Ice can be helpful, along with elevating the sting to help with swelling.

Medications to Treat Bee Stings

Over-the-counter creams and ointments are available to help with itching and reactions from bee stings, and the aforementioned Benadryl is always good for a beekeeper to have on hand.

Sting ointments often contain lidocaine or benzocaine, which are topical anesthetics. Benadryl (diphenhydramine) helps alleviate the resulting reactions, including swelling and itching, that you can get from stings. Calamine lotion and hydrocortisone creams, which you might already have in the medicine cabinet, can also be utilized.

For worst-case, anaphylactic reactions, an EpiPen is used immediately after the sting followed by a trip to the emergency room. EpiPens contain epinephrine, an emergency treatment for anaphylaxis. EpiPens require a prescription.

Home Remedies to Treat Bee Stings

Many homemade remedies and salves are known to be helpful, with varying degrees of success for bee stings. Mixing baking soda with water to create a salve, then applying this to the sting area is said to help ease symptoms. Other remedies that are said to help include applying vinegar with a cotton ball or cloth, applying honey to the sting, or even placing an onion cut in half over the sting. Regardless of the home remedy – and barring severe reactions, time itself is the one guaranteed and most successful of treatments.

When it comes to bee stings, there are a variety of ways to approach the issue. On the one hand, a beekeeper can fully suit up each time they visit the apiary in an attempt to avoid stings at all costs. In fact, there are those who are allergic to bees and still manage to keep bees, EpiPen in one pocket of their bee suit, hive tool in the other. This goes to show just how appealing beekeeping can be! Other beekeepers may choose to head out in short sleeves anticipating a sting or two without worry.

Regardless of your approach, understanding your bees, the science of stings, and your own tolerance for stings will importantly allow you to make informed decisions and tailor your approach to stings for yourself. It’s an approach that is unique to every beekeeper and comes down to what works best for you.

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