June 8, 2011

My husband endured several bee stings recently and I documented his experience so that I could share it with others. I found it fascinating that every person we came in contact with who saw the results of the bee stings asked two questions (1) If we were going to seek medical attention and (2) If we were going to stop keeping bees. It turns out that most people think severe swelling means you are allergic to bees. If it wasn't for my beekeeping course a year ago I would think the same thing. One myth I was told growing up is that the more you are stung the more allergic you become. When I was stung in the back once and it swelled about the size of a golf ball and itched for 4 days my mother told me I was allergic and should carry an epipen.

So I thought, since there are so many misconceptions about bee stings, I thought I'd clarify a few things I've learned. I have followed up my list of things to know about stings with a few pictures I took of my husbands hands as he recovered from his bee stings.

#1 Less than 1% of the population has a systematic allergy to honeybee stings.

#2 If you are allergic you will experience some or all of the following symptoms: rash or hives, swelling that is not in the area of the sting, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing. If you experience any of these symptoms after being stung seek medical attention immediately.

#3 An allergy is NOT: pain, swelling, redness, and/or itching.

#4 When stung by a honeybee you want to remove the stinger immediately by scraping and not pinching or pulling on it. Pinching or pulling the stinger forces more venom into your body and your reaction can be worse.

#5 The venom from a honeybee is different than that of a wasp, hornet, or other type bee such as a bumble bee. If you are allergic to one it doesn't mean you are allergic to the other.

#6 Honeybees, because their stingers are barbed, can sting only once and die shortly afterwards. Wasps & Hornets have smooth stingers, therefore, can sting several times.

#7 Honeybees generally do not sting when away from their hive. Unlike wasps and hornets that will sting unprovoked.

#8 Most physicians know very little about bee stings and have a tendency to diagnose allergies when none exist.

#9 The more often you are stung by a honeybee the less symptomatic you become.

#10 Honeybee stings are being used in place of some types of medical treatment for MS and arthritis. (Bee Venom Therapy)

DAY ONE OF BEE STINGS (This is the result of 2 stings previously thought to be 3). Hour after being stung. The two stings happened on the knuckle of the hand.

DAY TWO AFTER BEING STUNG (The pain from stings is the worst on day two. The skin is stretched to its max so there is lots of ache and itching).

DAY THREE. Not as painful but just as swollen. Still itchy. Swelling has stopped at the elbow.

ONE WEEK AFTER STING (A new youthful hand. How weird is that?!) The hand on the right is the one that was stung.

We figured a few things about the stings. One: the swelling may not have been so bad if my husband had removed the stingers faster. He spent a lot of time looking for something to scrape them off with, I'd say about 2 minutes too long.

Two: Although he ran to the store to buy benadryl and used ice packs for 3 days it only helped in the way of pain (the ice more than the benadryl). The swelling seemed to hang around until we figured out that elevating the hand worked quite a bit.

Now all he has to do is get stung in the other hand so both can be wrinkless :)
dixiebelle said...

Very interesting and educational, thank you for sharing that!!

Carrie Garvin said...

So interesting! I didn't realize that swelling doesn't always mean a really bad reaction--- AND I didn't know about the barbed stinger either.

Glad your husband is all mended- AND with a very young looking hand at that!

Steven C said...

If he does get stung on the other hand, make sure he gets that ring off FAST! If his hand swells, the ring will constrict and cut off circulation; and the ring itself may need to be cut off.

Whenever I work my hive(s), I always remove any rings just in case...

-- Steven

Michelle said...

Thanks for the reminder Steven! We are lucky it didn't happen on the hand with the ring because we didn't even think about it and the swelling happened quite fast.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post, Michelle! Some of the things you mentioned reinforces my need to tell people not to call all buzzing/stinging things bees. I have always hated for honey bees to get lumped in with aggressive stingers (like yellow jackets). I learned some terrific tips too (elevating the hand, for example)!

And, yeah, that is a great reminder from Steven! Something I need to remember for when I get stung by things other than bees that also make me swell up like a balloon. ;)

Peacocks 'n' Paint said...

Thanks Michelle, for a very well researched and well written blog! Everyone needs to know these things about bees. The "young" hand reminded me of an old man we used to buy honey from in Craig Colorado. He was in his 90's, with NO wrinkles, very smooth skin and a beautiful peaches and cream complexion. He said it was from all the bee stings and eating the bee pollen and honey. He said he sprinkled bee pollen on his cereal every day. Ever heard of that?

Pam J. said...

Great summary! Thanks for pulling it all together, especially #7. Recognizing the difference between a yellow jacket and a honey bee is also important and until I started beekeeping I didn't know the difference.

Bee sting allergy is a topic that always, always, always comes up when I talk about beekeeping. It seems like 8 out of 10 people I know or meet think they are allergic to stings and will die if they don't have an epipen. But when I ask "so do you carry an epipen with you?" the answer is invariably "no." I always wonder (but never ask): if they truly think they are in mortal danger of bee stings why DON'T they carry the epipen?

Michelle said...

Hey T, I agree. Now that I know the difference between wasps, hornets and actual bees I try to pass that info on. Most of us have been stung by wasps and hornets.

Kat, I learned about the benefits of bee pollen from my friend Teresa. She suggested it as a way to increase my energy level. It supposedly chocked full of vitamins... which I definitely need.

Pam, it is funny you mentioned the epipen because the exact topic came up in class last year. Our instructor said if you know you are allergic it is because you almost died and ended up in the hospital and now carry an epipen. If you have no epipen then how do you know you are allergic. This came up when I told my neighbors we were keeping bees and I asked if they had concerns. I am now interested in knowing how many people have actually been stung by honeybee. I suspect that I have been but not 100% sure. Even when hubby got stung it was raining, cold and he accidently knocked one hive body into another. It takes quite a bit to set carniolans off. The whole "stay still and you won't get stung" really works with them.

Sam Smith said...

Wow thats a lot of swelling, I feel for him. I know its funny that most people think localised swelling is a sign of "bee allergy" not realising that anaphylactic allergy is non-localised swelling throat ect, I have even had people tell me that my allergy would get worse the more I got stung.

Unknown said...

This post has really helped me. We just started beekeeping a week ago. Today I got my first sting ever- on the knuckle. The swelling really concerned me until I read your post. I'm really surprised at how badly I've been hurting from the moment it happened until now, 7 hours later. I didn't know a bee sting would hurt this much

Michelle said...

Becky Campbell,

I don't know if you've heard this so I apologize if you already know this but according to Marla Spivak (entomologist at the University of Minnesota) and Gary Reuter (life long beekeeper and educator) the more often you are stung the less it is suppose to hurt. In our beekeeping course at the U of M they had suggested letting your bees sting you at least 5 times early in the season so that when you were stung later you didn't have the pain, itching and swelling.

I can't say that I ever let my bees sting me. I was a very cautious beekeeper (always wore my head to toe suit) and wore gloves so I don't have any experience with the above but if you grow comfortable at some point with the stings it seems to be a common practice for some beekeepers to just get the stings over with quickly (I've seen beekeepers actually force their bees to sting them).

Happy Beekeeping Becky, we don't have any bees right now but I really miss them. They were a lot of fun to work with and very interesting to watch.

Unknown said...

Michelle! I thought I'd lost you! So glad to see you on here. I know this is not scientific, but I've seen it work several times. I hope it helps someone. Scrape out the stinger, cut an onion and hold that cut onion, juicy side down against that sting. It draws out the poison. Now I've heard a cut onion draws poison and germs out of sick rooms and will turn black overnight if left out. I don't know about that, but I do know it draws out the bee sting pain and swelling firsthand.

Michelle said...

Hi Kathryn!!!

How are you? I have been a bad blogger :( but trying to get back into it. Thank you for the info about the onion and stings! I will definitely keep that in mind for when we get bees again. Hopefully not too much longer :) are you still on facebook? I went back after deleting my account for about a year.

Unknown said...

What a coincidence! I've been a bad blogger too, but maybe now is a good time to get back into the swing of things! I went to my site and saw I last posted just after my mother's health took a nosedive. I moved her in with us for the last chapter of her life. It was taxing, but maybe I've recovered. I am gardening again but still not back to breeding peacocks or painting. I am still on Facebook. Find me faster at Kathryn Shepard Jensen. I've missed you!

Michelle said...


I'm so sorry about your mom (((hugs))). I hope you are feeling better now. The energy and creativity slowly comes back. You'll be creating soon again. I love your paintings! I've missed you too...I'll look for you on Facebook :)

Sue Kinner said...

thanks for an informative article and pictures. i have the exact same hand at this moment. i found your article while looking up bees and allergic reactions. so i'm not allergic, and i have to endure this for a couple of days. okay, i can handle that. thanks for the reassurance!! happy beekeeping!

Michelle said...

Polch, how is your hand? I hope you didn't have too experience too much pain :-(