“When there’s Honey in the Hive the bees will have a sting in their tails”
In general honeybees in the UK are disinclined to sting humans. They seldom sting away from the hive and only sting in defence of their colony or if in mortal danger. If you’re not a flower or a pot of honey they seldom take any notice of you. Female worker bees have a sting which delivers a cocktail of up to 80 noxious substances to defend their colony (mainly acids but also paradoxically some alkaline components). Stings are fairly painful but in most cases the pain resolves within a few minutes, however some swelling at the site & itchiness can remain for several days thereafter.
In most cases when a honeybee stings a human, the barbed stinger, venom sac and venom pump are left imbedded in the skin. After the bee pulls away some of its abdominal contents are ripped away & the honeybee eventually dies of dehydration.
If you are a beekeeper you will get stung. Beekeepers upset colonies, by inadvertently squishing bees or opening up colonies at times when bees simply aren’t receptive to visitors.
Bee stings can and will penetrate most bee suits and gloves. Most Beekeepers come to view stings as an unavoidable by-product of their interaction with bees.
The sting comprises a venom gland and sac, which continues to pump venom even after the sting has become detached from the bee. The sting is designed to gradually penetrate deeper into the skin.
Most of the venom is injected in the first 20 seconds. If you’ve never had the pleasure, think of a sharp, instant, hot, burning pain that lasts for 30 seconds - like being pricked with a red hot pin.
Stings on the face and other sensitive areas can produce more intense symptoms than places such as the back of the hand. (Always attend the toilet before visiting any remote apiary!)
The bees release an alarm pheromone to mark the area of the sting site, making further stings from other alerted bees more likely. These will be delivered in the vicinity of the original area affected (so getting out of Dodge is a wise move!)
The Queen bee is equipped with a sting but this is normally reserved for regicide when Queens fight for colony dominance - as in the Highlander movie ‘there can be only one’ (in normal circumstances). A sting from a Queen bee is a rarity as she will only use her sting on a human if they have Queen pheromone on them (from handling another Queen bee) and the Queen mistakes them for a rival. Drone (male) honey bees do not possess a sting.
Fortunately, in the main, bees are not aggressive and won’t sting with little provocation, so if you are gentle in handling them during inspections, inspect bees at sensible times and work with a good strain of gentle bees the number of stings you receive will be minimal.
Hope for the Best, Prepare for the worst:
Always carry a charged mobile phone to an Apiary in case of emergency
Due to the nature of bee venom, most people will experience some degree of allergic reaction to stings. The bee is counting on this to keep you away from their home in the future. Sting reactions can range from swelling in the vicinity of the sting, to a localized itching which may last for several days.
Anaphylaxis is a rare event but can be life threatening. This occurs in some people when their body goes into shock after a sting. The victim’s airway may react by swelling, impeding breathing, leading to collapse, unconsciousness and in rare cases death. (For this reason the swallowing of bees and wasps whilst cycling is not recommended!)
Unfortunately even beekeepers who normally show little reaction to bee stings may develop a sensitivity and react adversely the next time they are stung, so it is always wise to be prepared and ensure that help can be quickly summoned in an emergency. (Be wise, carry a phone.)
When to seek medical help?
In general it’s always more prudent to over-react to a medical event than under react. Don’t take chances with your own or someone else’s life. No-one will blame you for over-reacting to a situation you felt was life threatening.
See your GP if you've been stung and there's a lot of swelling.
- Stings to eyes should be treated as an emergency. UK Call 999.
- Bee stings in the airway (e.g. tongue or throat) must be regarded as a medical emergency. UK Call 999.
Dial 999 and ask for an ambulance if you experience any of these symptoms after a sting:
- wheezing or difficulty breathing.
- nausea, vomiting or diarrhoea.
- a fast heart rate lasting minutes after the sting.
- dizziness or feeling faint.
- difficulty swallowing or feelings of choking, mouth swelling.
- confusion, anxiety or agitation.
- a rash in an area remote from where you were stung.
- pale and clammy appearance lasting several minutes after a sting.
People who suffer increasing sensitivity to bee stings, or who have previously had an allergic reaction, are unfortunately at higher risk and should seek medical advice about whether this risk can be better managed. Bee sting de-sensitisation therapy is available in many areas in the UK.
Now you are sufficiently scared we should point out that, fortunately in the UK, you are 30,000 times more likely to be struck by lightening than die as a result of an insect sting.