The Beekeeper’s Companion Since 1861
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Plain Talk Beekeeping: The Basics … and then some

Honey Bee Stings

- June 1, 2023 - James E. Tew - (excerpt)

A casual discussion of a common beekeeping event

Honey bees’ big three
In no prioritized order, honey bees are known for producing honey, pollinating plants, and stinging. Honey and pollination are appreciated and have been discussed at length in every medium available to us, while defensive stinging is in a category all by itself.

Most people really don’t like to be stung by honey bees, or any other insect for that matter. Without supporting information, I suspect that the stinging behavior of bees prevents most people from keeping bees. If you’re going to become a beekeeper, sooner or later, you will take a sting — sometimes, more than one.


An established aspect of beekeeping
For most of us, on the surface, there’s normally not much good to be said for insect stings. But beneath the surface, a normal stinging event may require deeper exploration. For example, some stinging episodes provide lifelong memories. These memories amber with age, becoming a part of our beekeeping legacy, and will no doubt, through the years, be recalled many times with detailed overtones. Old sting stories are usually retold humorously, not fearfully.

Secondly, for many of us, a good stinging episode can momentarily roll back the years. We are briefly athletically young again — able to run, shout, and possibly crawl beneath cars — just generally do things we have not been able to do in years.


The ancestral ovipositor
It was a great day for that ancestral bee that evolutionarily decided to stop using her “ovipositor” for egg laying and modify it for use as a defensive weapon. Yes, it’s true. Only females sting and that goes for all other bees and wasps, too.

It’s more complicated than this even. Isopentyl acetate,1 a chemical that smells like bananas or almonds, is released during the stinging process and calls in reinforcement bees. I feel that it’s an irony that the bees’ alarm pheromone has a pleasant odor.

Depending on the disruption and on the colony’s temperament, these reinforcement bees may decide to join in the attack. The whole thing can turn into a bee-team effort, or a free-for-all, depending on your view. The honey bees’ defensive stinging system works well. I have never known anyone who enjoys a good bee sting at a tender spot.


No beekeeper magic
People who don’t keep bees logically think that beekeepers have some bee magic, maybe some secret procedure, even some kind of pain tolerance for the occasional sting. Not so. To a degree, all stings usually hurt. If it hurts, then why keep bees?

As you probably know already, though stimulating, normal stinging is not as bad as one might think. The typical person is confused by beekeepers seemingly being able to endure stings when they are so painful for everyone else.

I feel smug when people conjecture that I don’t get stung because, “my bees know me.” My bees do not personally know me. Since they live such short lives, most of my bees have never been introduced to me. In fact, my bees do not seem to care for me at all.


Beekeepers’ obvious defense
First and foremost, you don’t have to be stung — ever — if you wear all the garb. Premium protective clothing is readily available to modern beekeepers. But as your beekeeping ability progresses, it becomes troublesome to always put on all that paraphernalia and it’s frequently hot and clumsy to wear. Over time, most beekeepers slowly stop wearing all the ensemble — opting instead to take the occasional sting.

At some developmental point, the risk of a sting or two becomes less of a concern than the heat and clumsiness of the suit. After years of interacting with bees, a stinging occurrence is several items down the list of things that concern the experienced beekeeper. Nearly every one of us will begin to develop a tolerance to bee stings after being administered a few.

Finally, the bee sting becomes nothing more than a short, uncomfortable admonishment. Importantly, all stings are not the same. The age of the bee, the temperature of the day and your body temperature (stings hurt less when you are physically cold) all affect how intensely you feel the sting.


An aside …
Always protect your eyes. All experienced beekeepers will sometimes “take a quick look” inside the hive. Essentially, if we are doing anything with our bees, you and I should always have eye protection in place. Eyeglasses should press close to your face all the way around the lens. Common open eyeglasses may unintentionally trap the occasional bee between your lens and your eye. At that point, you will not be bored. I personally know this.


Reactions to bee stings
During my career, while working as an entomology professor, I was prohibited from administering medical advice when discussing bee stings and allergies. Now that I am retired, I still cling to that notion. My verbiage that follows is conversational and should not be considered medical advice. Visit your allergist for that information.

Swelling at the sting site is common and is not usually considered to be of a medical concern. Many people mistake this local swelling as a serious sting reaction and a justification of why they will never be a beekeeper.

Alternatively, a serious sting reaction is frightening and rarely mistakable. Difficulty breathing, hives or rashes, swelling away from the sting site, and fainting are all symptoms of a serious sting reaction. Thankfully, only a few people have truly life-threatening reactions.

Of the lifelong stings that I have experienced and have seen others receive, I have only witnessed three people having serious systemic honey bee sting reactions. Those were frightening enough. I am relieved to tell you that I have never seen another individual have an anaphylactic reaction. Those rare reactions can quickly be deadly.


A memorable sting experience
At the time, I had two colonies right against the back of my house. They were out of view of the bee-fearful public. A neighbor strolled over to chat one summer afternoon and saw the hives. They had been there for months, unnoticed. He was surprised, but not concerned that they were there. I hadn’t opened the hives in days. On this hot afternoon, there were the remnants of a nectar flow ongoing, so the situation was calm and routine. We discussed the goodness of the honey bee as we droned on and on about honey and pollination.

From out of the bee-blue, a socially misfitted bee stung my neighbor squarely in the middle of his forehead. It was unthinkable. Just minutes before, I had finished my impromptu lecture and now this. This situation was pure awkwardness. As I scraped out the stinger the bee had left behind from my neighbor’s head, I apologized for both the bee and me. The man was a good sport about the experience, but we moved our conversations farther from the hives. Forty-five years later, I clearly remember this stinging episode. My neighbor never became a beekeeper.


The tear-away stinger
The stinger tears out because, if possible, you are going to kill the bee and short-circuit the sting effort. The bee sting system is ingenious in that the barbed stinger and venom sac rip away and will continue to inject venom into the victim even though the attacking bee has been destroyed.

The remaining barbed-venom sac should be scraped out. Grabbing it with your forefinger and thumb will only squeeze the venom into you (or so I have always been told). As for the bee that just stung you — within a few hours, she’ll be finished. After all, she’s had her entire rear end torn away.


Cues for the stinging bee
Certainly, bees can see, but I suppose they need their version of eyeglasses. The text that you are reading here would have to be much larger for the literate bee to read what I have typed. However, bees can perceive movement very well. If you are accosted by a bee and begin to swat and flail around, you’re only giving the bee a better target. Movement is readily visual and human odors are spread around the area, thereby alerting more reinforcement bees.

The bee knows where you are, and in her own bee way, she knows what you are. You have an odor, not one that’s good or bad, but just human. You have eyespots (angered bees will preferentially sting targets having two spots resembling eyes), and now you’re flailing, shouting (bees can perceive your exhaled breath), and you’re probably jumping around. There’s a pretty good chance you’re going to be stung.


When under attack without bee protective gear
For the sake of your personal dignity and sense of control, I offer the following suggestions, though …