The Inevitable Sting

Thursday 21 July 2022

Bee stings are common, and everyone has a different reaction to being stung.  As beekeepers, it is inevitable that we will suffer stings from our bees. Read on to learn more about the physiology and mechanisms of the sting as well as how to prevent and mitigate stings from honey bees. 

The Inevitable Sting

Beyond the initial pain, have you ever wondered about what goes on when a bee stings? In preparation to sting, a honey bee brings its abdomen forward and pierces its target with a barbed stinger, or stylet.  The barbs on the stinger hold the bee’s victim in place while venom is pumped into the victim. This venom, or apitoxin, is composed of proteins that affect skin cells in the immediate area and causes a general immune response. This response can result in anything from slight pain and swelling around the sting to full-body anaphylactic shock (Mayo Clinic, 2020). For people with a life-threatening allergy to bee venom, medical attention is required immediately (Mayo Clinic, 2020; Orkin, 2022).

As a first aid treatment, EpiPens® are usually carried by those with a bee sting allergy and can be crucial in delaying full anaphylaxis until accessing hospital treatment. An EpiPen® contains a drug similar to adrenaline. This treatment slows the allergic response by relaxing the muscles and helps stop the decrease in blood pressure caused by the venom. If an allergic reaction occurs from a bee sting and an EpiPen® is used, the victim still needs to seek immediate medical attention (EpiPen, 2022). Even If you are not allergic to bee stings yourself and do not carry an EpiPen®, it is still very important to know how to use one. The official EpiPen website provides a short, free course on how to properly use an EpiPen®. Knowledge of this information may help save a life.   

Not only do bee stings affect humans, but they also affect the bee. A worker honey bee’s stinger and venom sac are connected to the digestive tract. When a bee stings, the stylet pierces the skin of the victim, and as it pulls away the stinger and part of the digestive tract are left behind. This will impair the bee and lead to death soon after. This only happens when they sting animals that have thicker skin such as humans and bears. It is less likely to happen when they sting things like small rodents which have thinner skin (Wilson, 2022).

As the stinger will usually remain after the bee has stung, it is important to properly remove these as quickly as possible. It is a common belief that scraping the stinger is the best method. However, the most important factor is how long the stinger is embedded in the skin, therefore the quickest method is best (Visscher, 1996). It is also important to note that with the sting, the honey bee alarm pheromone is released to warn other bees of danger.  This will cause defensive behavior in the remaining bees and they will be enticed to sting the same locations. It is a good idea after a sting to remove yourself from the area or mask the smell of the pheromone with smoke.  

Bee stings may be unexpected for most people, but for beekeepers it is common. There are many things that can be done to limit the number and severity of stings.  Wearing proper personal protective equipment (PPE) includes a bee suit or veil to provide protection around the face. It is also recommended that all skin is covered when beekeeping and openings around the ankle, waist, wrists, and neck should be closed off. Bees can sting through the fabric, but the thickness will help prevent the severity of the sting. Additionally, the use of a smoker will help keep bees calm and deter them from stinging (Gartur Stitch Farm, 2021).

Figure 1: Different levels of protection for beekeeping (ATTTA©2021)

Figure 2: Hive smoking tool (ATTTA©2021)


Written by Rebecca Campbell, ATTTA Summer Research Assistant

EpiPen. 2022.

Gartur Stitch Farm. 2021. Lets Talk PPE – for Beekeeping.

Mayo Clinic. 2020. Bee Sting. Mayo Clinic.,more%2Dserious%20immune%20system%20reaction.

Orkin. 2022. Honey Bee Sting. Orkin pest control.

Riddle S.. 2016. Bee Venom and the Chemistry of Ouch. Bee Culture.

Sartell J.. 2018. How to Calm Bees With Sugar Spray. Keeping Backyard Bees.,to%20accept%20their%20new%20home.

Wilson T.. 2022. How Bees Work. How stuff works.

Visscher P., Vetter R., Camazine S. 1996. Removing bee stings. The Lancet, 348 (90230): 301-302



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