Honeybee Stings and Allergies

Colony defense is a duty of the worker bees over two weeks old; most of them having been relieved from their tasks of brood tendering and comb construction and repairs. The hypopharyngeal glands no longer function at full efficiency but their poison glands are in the prime stage of development; hence their new job as guard bees.

Guard bees can recognize their nest members due to specific hive odor peculiar to each colony. In fact, it is this odor that makes passage of returning foragers back to the hive hitch-free. Although intruders from other colonies are repelled by the defending guards but any foreign forager that is loaded with nectar or pollen may enter without being examined or attacked.

The stinger of a honeybee is used as a weapon to defend the hive. Several glands in the sting apparatus produce different pheromones with quite separate functions. The alarm pheromone is secreted by the worker bee to stimulate other workers to sting or alert them of danger.

The stinger consists of a venom gland, sack, and bulb; several muscles; two pumps inside the venom bulb; and three prongs (two serrated digging blades and a stabilizing rod for the blades to run on). The blades combine with the rod to form a hollow tube for venom delivery.

When honey bees sting, pheromones are released that can incite other nearby bees to join the attack. One stinging bee can turn into hundreds or even thousands of stinging bees in just a short time. You know why? The stinging pheromone will blind the atmosphere smelling like burning banana smoke. It’s advisable to use smoker vigorously when you perceive such odor in the apiary to discontinue transmission of this pheromonal odor for safety.

Stinging behavior is strongly affected by genetic components, meteorological and other environmental factors. The following factors can instigate stinging behavior:

  • An increasing colony population especially during honey-flow season
  • Manipulation of the colony at mid-day during hot weather
  • Reduction in flight activities at the entrance due to poor foraging circumstance and or unfavorable weather
  • Smoke used for calming the bees is of poor fuel quality or not giving cool soothing effect on the bees
  • Crushing of many bees during inspection or manipulation due to careless handling either of the bees or equipment
  • Frequent disturbances of the colony by pests; the beekeeper inclusive; and other predators
  • Wearing dark-color cloth made of woolen material to the apiary
  • Wearing dirty bee dress, especially if it carries stings from previous inspection. Remember bees are smart at perceiving odor!

In short, beekeeping can be more pleasurable if the beekeeper is able to understand the defensive behavior of the bees.

When the hive is attacked by other insects, bees can sting these unwanted strangers multiple times, injecting venom and then removing the stinger safely after each stab. However; when attacked by larger animals – like birds or people – bees insert the stinger deep into the flesh, then fly away. The stinger tears off the bee’s body rupturing the abdominal part along with the venom gland, pumps, and muscles. The process kills the bee but allows the stinger to continue digging and squirting venom into the attacker ensuring that every drop is used.

What happens when a bee stings you?

For most people, a bee sting is just a nuisance. You may experience temporary sharp pain, swelling, redness, warmth, and itching at the sting site, but no serious complications. If you’re allergic to bees, or you get stung multiple times, bee stings can be more problematic. They can even be life-threatening.

If a bee stings you, it leaves a behind a venomous toxin that can cause pain and other symptoms. Some people are allergic to this toxin. Mild allergic reactions may cause extreme redness and increased swelling at the sting site.

Reactions to venom from honeybees are either local, systemic or anaphylactic; but resistance to bee stings may arise as a result of constant stings.

Local reaction: There will be swelling with redden and itchy feeling in the affected area. The symptoms may occur within few hours or 2 days.

Systemic reaction: This involves body rash, vomiting, abdominal cramp/pain, nausea and in some cases fainting may result due to falling blood pressure. The symptoms may occur within few minutes or hours.

Anaphylactic reaction: The symptoms include vomiting, breathing difficulty, fainting and in some cases death due to cardiac arrest and or circulatory and respiratory collapse. This reaction occurs really; just within seconds or minutes.

The hurt inflicted by a bee is two-pronged: First, when bees sting they release a chemical called melittin into their victim. This venom immediately triggers pain receptors, causing a burning sensation. Second, because a bee’s stinger is in fact barbed like a jig saw, when it penetrates the victim’s skin it actually dislodges from the bee, remaining there. The longer the stinger stays in the skin, the more venom is released, continuing its toxic assault for up to a minute or more; hence the need to remove stinger as quickly as possible.

As long as you’re not allergic to bee venom, your immune system will react to the sting by sending fluids there to flush out the melittin, causing swelling and redness. The pain may last several days, but can be soothed with a cold compress or an antihistamine.

When most people think of bee stings, they’re thinking of stings from the honey bee. Honey bees that are out and about searching for nectar or pollen away from the hive usually won’t sting anyone. Honey bees at home protecting their hive, however, are another matter entirely.

Honey bees will vigorously defend their hives from perceived threats. If you stumble upon a honey bee hive and the bees sense you as a threat, they will actively attack and try to sting you.

Tips to Avoid Bee Stings

  • Avoid fragrances, including body/hair spray, scented soaps, lotions, and oils. Bees usually approach people with a sweet scent.
  • Don’t wear brightly colored clothing, particularly floral patterns, i.e. don’t look like a flower patch. Bees also see in the ultraviolet range. If the pattern lights up under black light, it is particularly interesting to bees.
  • Be very careful with food and odorous substances when held.

Steps to take when a bee lands on you to avoid frightening it.

  • Hold still. Tell kids to pretend they’re statues. Rapid movement startles the bee and encourages stinging.
  • Try blowing gently on the bee. This can encourage it to move on while not startling it.
  • Wear shoes. Bees will of course be frightened if you step on or near them barefooted. Shoes don’t make them less frightened, but they do protect feet from frightened bees.
  • Wear long trousers when you know you are going to be in an area that is likely to have bees in it, such as a field.
  • Wear a hat. Furry animals steal honey from bees. Bees are in a heightened state of readiness when they are close to hair or fur. They have been proven to have a higher threshold for stinging people with hats.

Treating bee stings

  • Remove the stinger with all haste, in whatever manner is most convenient. If you see a little black dot in the wound, part of the stinger is still present.
  • Clean the area with soap and water.
  • Honey may help with wound healing, pain and itching. To treat bee stings with honey, apply a small amount to the affected area. Cover with a loose bandage and leave on for up to an hour,
  • You can consider applying an antiperspirant to the site. An ingredient called aluminum chlorohydrate may reduce the effect of bee venom.
  • Apply cold. Use ice or cool water for 10 to 30 minutes after the sting. This blunts the body’s allergic
  • An antihistamine such as Benadryl, taken by mouth, can give some added relief, and help prevent the reaction from spreading.
  • A shake lotion such as calamine can be helpful. A paste made of baking soda and water can have a similar effect.
  • Topical hydrocortisone can also provide some symptomatic relief.
  • Give acetaminophen or ibuprofen for systemic pain relief.
  • Onions, toothpaste and lemons are all believed to relieve stings.

Queen honey bees are able to sting repeatedly, but queens rarely venture out of hives, and would be more likely to use their stings against rival queens during royal battle. Bumble bees have a smooth stinger, and are able to sting repeatedly, but bumblebees are rarely aggressive too.

The fear of bee stings can sometimes result in people developing a fear of bees, which is known as apiphobia. As a beekeeper, you must understand bee biology very well and be methodical in dealing with the bees. Don’t let any one deceive you as a beekeeper; you must be stung from time to time except you don’t venture in to  simple queen rearing. So be prepared.

To your beekeeping success!


Bidemi Ojeleye is the Founder/Director, Centre for Bee Research & Development (CEBRAD), a reputable Certified Master Beekeeper and author of many beekeeping textbooks. Do you want to join our Beekeeping Investment Scheme (BIS) or have any beekeeping problem freezing your brain? Please visit www.cebrad.com or call 08066744545, 09057760404, 07083813308 for final solution.

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