Monday, June 17, 2013

In Defense of Bee Stings

Last weekend I got stung by honeybees. Two stings, in fact-- one to my right wrist and another just to the left of my nose. It's been fun getting everyone's dramatic reactions and horrifying stories of stings from their childhood, but I want to step back a bit in this post and clarify some misconceptions about bees and stings.

Those mean bees!

No, actually they were goaded into it. Really, the only thing I could have done to aggravate them more would be to stomp on the hive!

The Robbing, Part 1

My niece and nephew were visiting from out of state, so I thought it'd be fun to try harvesting from my top-bar hive for the first time. We got in there and some of the comb wasn't being made exactly parallel to the bars, so I went ahead and cut out the crooked parts. Unfortunately the cut went through some of the active brood comb.

Now, if you're a bee, imagine some giant creature deciding your garage isn't quite in the right spot. So the giant comes through with a massive blade and cuts through the kids' room, sawing a couple of them in half and taking a few more of them with him as he steals that part of your house. This would not make you a happy bee!

The Robbing, Part 2

We went in for lunch, then a half-hour later tried robbing a different section of the hive. At this point the pheromone signal had time to permeate. The hive was under attack and all the bees were on high alert!

This time we found a couple of frames that didn't have active brood in them, so it was time to raid the larder in earnest. My assistant brushed the bees off the comb, then my nephew ran them inside to be carved up. By the time we moved on to the third frame there were several hundred bees in the air that were looking to pick a fight.

The Vengeance

Did I mention yet that I wasn't wearing any protective gear? No hat, no veil, no gloves. Shorts and a T-shirt for me!

One of the bees figured out that the giant raiding the nest had an appendage called a "hand" that was nearby! She nobly gave her life as a distraction, but to no avail. The monster kept coming, peering closer with its enormous eyes, greedily eyeing the children in the nursery.

Actually, I was just trying to figure out if this comb had enough honey to be worth taking.

Seizing opportunity, another defender dove in for the attack. Her stinger's barb exposed, a drop of venom glistening in the sun, she plunged for vengeance!

Have you ever been stung on the face? It's rather disconcerting. Among my top 10 favorite activities, face stings are not to be found. At this point I saw the larvae on the comb and decided they had a pretty good reason to be defending. Carefully, I set the full bar back on the hive and packed the remaining empty bars in place. Gently, I set the top back on the hive.

Once the bees were safely packed back up, I stepped away from the hive and had my assistant get the stingers out. This was a good 2-3 minutes after the stings, so there was plenty of time for the venom sacs to empty into me.

Lessons learned:

  1. Minimal protective gear would have prevented the face sting. Frankly, the wrist sting could have been avoided too.
  2. If you're going to harvest, do it for real. Don't carve up the larvae and go back a half hour later expecting the bees to act as if nothing happened.
  3. Get the stingers out soon. Brush with your hand, pluck with tweezers, scrape with a credit card... just get them off.

How horrible! You must be allergic!

Reactions to honeybee venom vary widely, and can even change over time. I had a couple stings last year and they didn't swell up nearly as much. This time the stingers were left in WAY longer than before. Get the stingers out fast! Also, people around bees who aren't getting stung can develop more severe allergies than people who don't have regular contact with bees. Crazy, huh? Plus, it can be that the more you're stung, the less you react. Apparently I should be getting stung once a month or so to keep my immune system updated with the latest "security patch". And as bad as it looks, apparently this is a pretty typical reaction for a sting on the face.

So your bees aren't really mean, and you're not severely allergic?

Pretty much.

What now?

I'd like to try building up an immunity to bee venom. There are a couple areas of my body that are numb on the skin, so they seem like good candidates for an initial inoculation. Still not sure how to catch a bee "safely", and frankly I'm not thrilled with the idea of terrorizing one so badly that she's prepared to kill herself for my science experiment.


  1. I was stung several times every summer of my youth, and overall my reaction declined, but I have always experienced throbbing pain, burning, and then severe itching for several days when the pain subsided. The two times I have been stung by a scorpion were much nicer, as there was little swelling and no lingering itching (though the initial few minutes were quite a bit more painful).

    It is possible to develop an allergy after becoming immune to a venom. We knew a venom researcher who was immune to about 25 species of snakes that he milked regularly. He developed an allergy to his rattlesnake venom and his nose would run and eyes itch every time he milked the snake. He eventually got bit from a large rattlesnake and died of anaphylaxis in spite of epinephrine injection. But a rattlesnake probably injects 1,000 times more venom than a bee

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