Honey Bees – Doing Their Own Sting

Thursday 15 June 2023

When you make the decision to become a beekeeper, you are inevitably agreeing to experience bee stings. Overall, the risk of being allergic to honey bee venom is low, but when you are a beekeeper, you are constantly exposing yourself to honey bees, and, therefore, that means you are likely to learn if you’re allergic. In this week’s blog we will discuss why people experience a reaction after being stung by a honey bee.

Honey Bees – Doing Their Own Sting

The venom of a honey bee is composed of protein allergens, peptides, toxins and histamines. The major allergen in their venom is phospholipase A2 (Golden, 2005). So, when we are stung there are two types of responses that can occur. The first type is localized inflammation. A local inflammatory response is more common to occur, and rarely requires medical attention. Typically, this reaction will cause pain and swelling for a few minutes to a few hours at the site of the sting. If swelling is greater than 10cm this is considered a large local reaction (Golden, 2009). If this large local reaction is near your neck this may be cause for concern. Having too much swelling around the neck could cause difficulty breathing and will require medical attention immediately.

The second type of response is an adaptive immune response, where the body destroys venom. When stung, the body will produce antibodies to remove toxins from the body. But when the adaptive immune response fails, an over-reaction, or an anaphylactic response, can occur. When an anaphylactic, or acute, response occurs, there are a variety of signs and symptoms to look for, including: swelling of the tongue and throat, airway obstruction, drop in blood pressure, hives and/or rash, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and/or abdominal pain. An anaphylactic response has no correlation to amount of venom, or the number of stings, but rather is a result of how the antibodies interact with bee venom. It is important to understand that factors such as age, medications and pre-existing health conditions can cause anaphylaxis to be more serious. In fact, fatality of bee stings is more likely in men and adults over 40 (Graft, 2005).

Despite how serious bee stings can be, there is good news for beekeepers. A study done by Bousquet et al. (1989) determined that beekeepers who are stung upwards of 50 times a year are less likely to experience a reaction. Beekeepers stung less than 25 times a year are more likely to experience a reaction. Basically, frequent exposure to bee venom decreases the risk of having an anaphylactic response. This could also be the reason why the first few stings of the season can cause a bigger reaction in beekeepers who haven’t been stung over the winter. The reason for this phenomenon is that the number of antibodies to venom lessens over time.

Honey bee with singer in arm (ATTTA©2023)

If you are allergic to bees, or do not know if you are, you should carry an EpiPen®. The use of EpiPens® can be critical to preventing full anaphylaxis once symptoms start. This treatment slows the allergic response by relaxing the muscles and helps stop decreasing blood pressure. If you experience an allergic reaction, you must still seek medical attention after administrating the EpiPen® (EpiPen, 2022).

There are several things you as a beekeeper can do to prevent bee stings. Always wear personal protective equipment (boots, pants, bee suit/jacket, veil, and gloves). Have your smoker nearby to keep bees calm and deter them from stinging. Additionally, if you get stung, be sure to smoke the area to mask the smell of alarm pheromones.


Connecting with ATTTA Specialists

If you’d like to connect with ATTTA specialists or learn more about our program, you can:

visit our website at https://www.perennia.ca/portfolio-items/honey-bees/

Email abyers@perennia.ca



Bousquet et al. (1984) Clinical and immunologic survey in beekeepers in relation to their sensitization. Journal of Allergy & Clinical Immunology. 73(3). 332-340

EpiPen. 2022. https://www.epipen.ca/how-epipen-works

Golden, DBK. (2005). Insect sting allergy and venom immunotherapy: A model and a mystery. Journal of Allergy & Clinical Immunology. 115(3). 439-447

Golden, et al. (2009). Venom immunotherapy reduces large local reactions to insect stings. Journal of Allergy & Clinical Immunology. 123(6). 1371-1375

Graft. DF. (2006). Insect sting allergy. The Medical Clinics of North America. 90. 211–232