Why do honeybees sting?
Honeybees generally only sting to protect their colony. When they are out of the hive foraging they are far too busy and have nothing to protect. If you are stung by a bee out and about it is likely that you did something to cause the bee serious concern, such as crushing it.
When a bee stings, barbs in the lance of the sting cause it to stick into the victim pulling out the venom sacs and glands when the bee is shaken off. The venom sac muscles continue to pump after these organs have been torn from the dying bee thus adding more venom. This video on YouTube shows this action close up.
Only the female workers and the queen can sting, the queen having a smooth sting which she uses to kill other queens, while surviving herself. It is very unlikely that a queen bee will sting anything other than other queens and you will be very lucky if you ever see a queen bee away from the hive.
What to do if you are stung
When a honeybee stings the part ripped from the bee releases a pheromone. This pheromone sends a message to other bees to also sting here. It is therefore important to remove the sting. This is best done by scraping the stinger with a finger nail, credit card or your hive tool. Next disguise the pheromone by applying smoke from your smoker to the area that has been stung.
Everyone will have some from of reaction to bee stings. This can range from a simple reddening of the area to a serious life threatening reaction called anaphylaxis. It is thought that only 1% of the population has a serious allergy to wasp or bee stings, wasps being the more common.
In most cases the swelling will last for a couple of days and then disappear. You can apply an antihistamine cream to the spot. Many chemists and supermarkets sell such creams over the counter.
People who have experienced anaphylaxic shock after a bee or wasp sting are 60-70% more likely to show the same reaction in future.
Symptoms of anaphylaxis
The symptoms include:
- feeling lightheaded or faint
- breathing difficulties – such as fast, shallow breathing
- a fast heartbeat
- clammy skin
- confusion and anxiety
- collapsing or losing consciousness
Anaphylaxis is a medical emergency. It can be very serious if not treated quickly.
If someone has symptoms of anaphylaxis, you should:
- use an adrenaline auto-injector if the person has one – but make sure you know how to use it correctly first.
- call 999 for an ambulance immediately (even if they start to feel better) – mention that you think the person has anaphylaxis.
- remove any trigger if possible – for example, carefully remove any stinger stuck in the skin.
- lie the person down flat – unless they’re unconscious, pregnant or having breathing difficulties.
- give another injection after 5 to 15 minutes if the symptoms do not improve and a second auto-injector is available.
If you’re having an anaphylactic reaction, you can follow these steps yourself if you feel able to.
Read about how to treat anaphylaxis for more advice about using auto-injectors and correct positioning.
As a beekeeper you can carry antihistamine tablets if the person showing symptoms has no auto-injector then having them chew (horrible taste, but could save a life) two tablets may help. Do be aware that some of these tablets can cause drowsiness themselves and may therefore confuse the symptoms you are observing.
Castle Hill Hospital in Cottingham hosts the Adult immunology and allergy service and provide desensitisation treatment. This is a charge for service, but if you want to keep bees and suffer with anaphylaxis this may be worth while.