Bees are part of the outdoor experience. They are a sign of spring and all that is good in nature. Unless you get stung. Then, bees are not so great. Especially if you are allergic to their venom. Many times, bees turn a simple hike into a frenzied search for effective bee sting remedies.
Luckily, for most of us bee stings are not a huge concern. We have been stung many times with no serious consequences. The problem is that the next time could be the first time you react negatively, and without prior warning it is unlikely you will have an epi-pen with you to treat bee sting quickly.
Even those among us who need to be careful around these little flying honey makers can be relatively relaxed about the real danger they pose. Most bees don’t care about you at all, and attack only if severely threatened. And, the major hive attacks we all occasionally see on the news can be avoided with a healthy dose of common sense and some knowledge about how bees behave.
Individual Bees Just Want to Get Along
Despite their reputation for stinging, bees are not angry at the world or obsessed with backyard domination. They are an industrious insect who believe in protecting their own. Individual bees out collecting pollen and nectar want no part of an attack. They have work to do.
Stings from workers normally occur when the bee is threatened or handled roughly. If you leave a solo bee alone, it will most likely fly away without targeting your face in a frenzied assault.
Discovering a Hive Might Cause an Attack
Stumbling onto a bee hive is an entirely different problem. Bees have become accustomed to larger animals raiding their supply of honey and they don’t like it. That honey is meant to feed their young.
Bees have developed a vicious response to anything or anyone who menaces the hive.This includes a sophisticated identification system to pick out the threats.
Common Bee Sting Triggers
- Alarm Pheromones
- Carbon Dioxide
- Dark Colors
When a bee senses any of these triggers, or a combination of multiple warning signs, they cautiously approach and verify. Once they establish these triggers are present, they attack.
If you look closely at the triggers some common perceptions about bee attacks start to make sense. Bears steal honey from bees, so bees evolved to form a defense system against bears. Humans give off vibrations, exhale carbon dioxide, and have hair so we too are subject to a bee’s wrath when close to the hive.
This also explains why bees seem to always go for the head. That is where the hair is. It helps that we have a natural urge to protect our face and eyes and panic a bit when attacked there, but the hair is what draws the stings.
Alarm Pheromones Are a Sophisticated Warning System
When a scout notices a possible honey thief they fly out to investigate. When an actual threat is detected, the stinger is presented, releasing attack pheromones into the air to alert the waiting swarm back at the hive. All they need is the final signal to swarm out and defend their territory.
Once the bee decides to sting, she has decided her fate. Honeybees do not normally survive stinging a mammal with skin thick enough to engage the barbs on her stinger. After stinging and releasing poison, the bee flies away, fatally ripping her body almost in half.
But this final act of courage serves a purpose. When the barbs engage, more attack pheromones are released to tell the rest of the hive to send reinforcements. To keep the attacker occupied, the dying bee circles the head of the hive’s target, feigning more attacks despite her lack of a stinger.
You Should Always Hope You Have Disturbed a European Honey Bee Hive
In the last thirty years Africanized bees have migrated to parts of the northern hemisphere. This far more aggressive strain has changed our thinking on how to approach a bee hive due to their natural tendency to attack. European bees are still more common, and are far less likely to cause serious injury when provoked.
European bees are actually pretty laid back. It takes a real threat to get them going. And, once they attack in numbers, they are content to merely drive off their opponent with pursuits lasting less than ten yards on average.
Africanized bees are a whole other problem. Extremely sensitive to triggers, especially motion, these fierce fliers will swarm at the slightest provocation. And, they sting to kill, sometimes pursuing their quarry for hundreds of yards before giving up the chase.
If you stumble on a hive of Africanized bees you will know it in a hurry. They respond twice as fast as their European cousins and move up to 30 times faster while attacking. If you don’t like bees to start with, this would be a nightmare.
Many theories exist as to why the Africanized bees are so brutal. The best suggest that their native tropical habitats contain far more predators and the Africanized bees were forced to get tough or die out. No matter the cause, if Africanized bees are reported in your area, it is best to take this as a real threat.
Bee Stings Affect Everyone Differently
Being stung is never a good time, but some people react more than others to the poison. Highly reactive people, or those who suffer from bee allergies, can suffer serious physical harm and even death if the sting goes untreated.
Even if you have never reacted badly to a sting before, it is possible that the next incident could cause an allergic reaction depending on your physical health, the amount of poison injected, and other variables.
What to Do if You Are Stung by a Single Bee and Suffer No Immediate Allergic Reaction?
- Leave the immediate area in case more bees are coming to finish the job.
- Remove the stinger by scraping the skin with a credit card or similar hard flexible object.
- Wash the wound site with warm soapy water.
- Apply ice for twenty minutes each hour to prevent swelling.
- Take an Antihistamine if you get itchy or experience swelling.
- Take over the counter pain relievers as necessary
The Three Levels of Allergic Reaction
If you are not experiencing an allergic reaction, the pain and discomfort from a bee sting should go away within a few hours.
The majority of bee stings are successfully treated at home with no lasting physical effects, but not if an allergy is present. Here are signs and symptoms of the three levels of bee allergies:
- Normal or Low Reaction: Expected amount of swelling and mild pain with no lasting effect. No or little nausea. No difficulty breathing.
- Significant Reaction: Some mild nausea. Swelling past the immediate site of the sting. Swelling or redness persists for several days.
- Severe Reaction: Swelling not associated with the sting location. Nausea and difficulty breathing. Seek Emergency medical attention immediately.
Having A Bee Allergy Requires Different Treatment When Stung
Having a bee allergy is no joke. More than 40 Americans die every year after being stung. If you have an allergy, special care should be taken. Make sure you have your complete first aid kit to stay protected at all times.
In addition to the standard treatment for bee stings, the following precautions should be taken.
- Do not leave the allergic victim of a bee sting alone. Some people react slowly to a bee allergy, but the result can still be fatal. Make sure someone is standing by who is familiar with the signs and symptoms of a severe bee allergy.
- Use an epi pen. (Epinephrine pen). Someone with a known severe bee allergy should have an epi pen, and possibly two. Ask for the pen’s location soon after the sting, swelling could make speaking with the victim difficult after a short period of time.
- Seek medical treatment as soon as possible. If an epi pen is used and is effective, continue to seek emergency medical care for continued treatment.
Anaphylaxis is the Worst-Case Scenario When Stung by a Bee
The severe allergic reaction caused by a sting is called anaphylaxis. It is caused by your system being rapidly overwhelmed by a deadly cocktail of hormones and chemicals.
If untreated, anaphylaxis can be fatal, especially if the victim is elderly or very young. To recognize anaphylaxis, watch out for these signs:
- Rapid or Erratic Heartbeat
- Falling Blood Pressure
- Swelling or Constriction of the Airway
- Any Difficulty Breathing
- Any Difficulty Speaking
If someone you know shows these symptoms after being stung by a bee, get them to a hospital immediately. In fact, get them to a hospital whether they know they have been stung or not. Many stings go unnoticed and bees are not the only creatures who can cause this type of allergic reaction.
The Five Most Common Insects in North America That Cause Anaphylaxis
- Yellow Jackets
- Fire Ants
That’s right, fire ants can kill if you have a sensitivity to their poison. Fortunately, it would take a very high number of attacking ants to put you in the hospital, but vomiting and nausea are very real possibilities.
How to Avoid Living in Fear of Bees
The easiest way to avoid bee stings is to stay indoors. Of course, that is probably not an option, nor should it be. But avoiding being stung is really not that difficult if you pay attention to your surroundings and use what you know about bees to your advantage.
If you remember, single bees out in the open are rarely looking for a fight. They are looking for food. If you happen to threaten them, they will retaliate.
When you see a bee, remain calm. It will react to your response either positively or negatively. If you are calm and unbothered, the bee will eventually leave.
Flailing your arms and shouting is the exact opposite of what you want to do. Feeling threatened, the bee might attack. Aiming for your hair and emitting alarm pheromones to call for more friends intent on making you a pin cushion.
Eliminating the Attraction Will Eliminate the Bees
If you plant flowers around your back porch, you will have bees. If you leave a sticky sweet can of soda open on your picnic table, the bees will come in droves. Eliminating or moving the odors and food sources which attract bees will go far in your quest to remain unscathed.
In the summer, every living thing is looking for water and bees are no exception. If you are soaking wet after playing in the pool, expect a bee to see the beads of water on your skin as an opportunity for a drink. If you don’t panic and use slow movements to shoo the intruder away, you will emerge unscathed. Take a look at our list of the top insect repellents to keep you safe from all biting insects.
Be Aware of Possible Hive Locations and Dress for Sting-Free Success
The real concern is accidentally stumbling upon a hive and being overwhelmed before you can escape. Preparing for this unfortunate, but rare, occurrence should keep you out of harm’s way.
Wear brightly colored clothing with long sleeves and a hat when working in the yard or hiking and camping. If you see a bee and it looks annoyed, scout your immediate surroundings for possible hive locations. If you think there could possibly be a hive nearby, leave.
Sometimes we notice an unusually high number of bees in one area, like an eave or an attic vent. Assume there is a hive and take precautions before investigating. It is common for bees to build hives inside of homes, whether in the attic, the basement, or even in the walls. For tips on how to choose the best hiking clothes, see our piece to find out.
If you locate a hive on your property, call a professional. It is worth the small expense and some will even remove the bees for free in order to add to their own hives. Death from bee stings is not common but why take the chance?
Home Remedies and Cures for Bee Stings Are Unproven for Anaphylaxis
There are several concoctions rumored to alleviate the discomfort of a bee sting. Natural cures and homeopathic remedies have their place, but when dealing with something as potentially harmful as an anaphylactic reaction care should be taken when relying on an untested method for treatment. For non-allergenic reactions, go for it.
Ten Things People Actually Put on Themselves to Alleviate Bee Sting Discomfort
- Chewing Tobacco Paste
- Meat Tenderizer
- Crushed Garlic
- Wet Aspirin Pill
- Witch Hazel
- Lavender Oil
- Apple Cider Vinegar
- Baking Soda
Many of these ingredients make sense. Some are analgesics, others are astringents, and some just seem like they would probably help. As long as no rash occurs, there doesn’t seem to be any harm in trying one or more for relief, but if you have trouble breathing go to the hospital.
Bee Stings Are to be Respected Not Feared
At the end of the day, most bee stings are minor events quickly forgotten. It is best to remove the stinger, wash the area, and apply ice to reduce swelling but forgetting a step or two will most likely not be reason for concern.
It is the worst-case scenario that causes alarm. Someone highly allergic being stung or a person wandering into the cross hairs of an angry hive are potentially life threatening and require a plan. However rare, fatalities do occur from bee sting and they are preventable with knowledge and awareness.
The outdoors is full of things far more dangerous than bees which we respect and work around when in our path. Bees should be the same way. Especially because all they are really doing is cooking up delicious honey. For more common bee sting treatments, check out our previous piece to find out more.
Have you had a severe reaction to a bee sting? Do you have a story about a swarming hive of bees chasing your buddy into a lake? If so, share it with us and our readers in the comments section.