Bee Stings: Facts and Treatment

There seem to be a lot of misconceptions
about bees and their sting.

  Which Bees Are Armed and Dangerous?

Angry bee cartoon.

The vast majority of North America's female bees do sting. However male bees do NOT sting.

Consider that there are nearly 4,000 native bees in this country alone, and they range in size from pinhead to cotton ball. Trying to characterize something like the painfulness of bee stings into one category across that many bees is like trying to sum up the super powers of all the Avengers in one word.

  Why Do Bees Sting?

Bees use their stings to subdue prey and to defend themselves or their colony. While various species display different degrees of aggressiveness, the same basic reasons for attacking and stinging are the instinctive desire to feed themselves or their colony members and to protect and defend their colony.

  How Do Bees Sting?

Animated honey bee stinger.

If you've ever been stung by a bee, you likely recall the nasty side effects that followed the sting — like the pain, redness, and swelling at the site of the attack. When we get a bee sting, our bodies do a whole lot of work to fight against the bee's venom

A bee’s stinger is a modified version of an ovipositor (egg depositor). The stinger itself consists of three main components: one stylet (the penetrating “needle”) and two lancets (small barbed tips). Each of these components is hollow.

They connect to another hollow chamber called a bulb at the top of the stinger. The bee’s venom is stored in a venom sac above the bulb. The venom sac deposits venom into the bulb via two valves.

When the bee stings, they insert the stylet into the skin like a needle. As the bee inserts the stylet, the barbs of the two lancets catch on the flesh at different points. This creates a small gap between the tips of the lancets, exposing the hollow space inside the stylet. Meanwhile, venom flows from the bulb and down through the canal-like hollow structure of the stylet. When the gap opens, venom in the stylet flows out into the wound created by the stinger. Honey bee stingers are also barbed at the end, which prevents easy removal.

Bee Venom

Bee venom is called apitoxin which is a complex mixture of protein substances that affect cellular function. It breaks apart fat layers in cells and destroys skin mast cells. When skin mast cells die they release histamine, which dilates the blood vessels.

Besides destroying red blood cells and it activates pain receptor cells in both direct and indirect ways. It’s primarily responsible for the pain that accompanies a bee sting.

Apitoxin also contains anti-coagulation factors to prevent local blood clots near the sting. This which helps the venom circulates further in the blood stream.

  Do Bees Die After They Sting?

Bumble Bees and Carpenter Bees have smooth stingers and are capable of stinging multiple times without dying. Fortunately, they are both relatively docile species.

For Honey Bees however, stinging is typically fatal. This is because, unlike other species, honey bees have barbed stingers. These can get stuck in the skin of animals, including humans. When the bees fly away, the stinger is left behind, effectively disemboweling the insect and causing it to die a gruesome death.

  Your Body's Reaction To A Bee Sting

Common reactions include pain, swelling, warmth, redness at the site of the sting and itching. Symptoms begin soon after a sting and may last several hours. Less common is excessive swelling, which occurs in large local reactions, may last up to a week. Other symptoms related to large local relations include nausea and fatigue.

  Bee Sting Treatment

Bee stinging skin.

A mild bee sting reaction should subside within a few hours. A moderate reaction might last up to ten days. And a severe reaction (anaphylaxis) can be life-threatening.

1. As soon as possible get the stinger out of the site. The sooner that happens the less intense the pain and swelling should be. Sometimes the stinger is not left in the skin, you can tell by gently running a fingernail over the sting area. Do not squeeze or use tweezers or scissors to remove the stinger because that can cause more venom to be released.

2. Wash the sting area with soap and water. Apply ice to the area to reduce the swelling. An over-the-counter pain medication might help as well. It might also help to elevate the area that has been stung.

3. A hydrocortisone cream or calamine lotion can help the pain and itching. An oral antihistamine might also help if the bee sting continues to bother you. Try not to scratch the area.

4. Go to the emergency room or call 911 immediately if the swelling spreads or if there is trouble breathing, swelling of throat and tongue, dizziness, rapid pulse, nausea, or hives.

Epipen and Bee Allergies

If you're allergic to bee stings, your doctor is likely to prescribe an emergency epinephrine autoinjector (EpiPen, Auvi-Q, others). You'll need to have it with you at all times. An autoinjector is a combined syringe and concealed needle that injects a single dose of medication when pressed against your thigh.

Always be sure to replace epinephrine by its expiration date.

Beee in flight.

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Graphic of bee in winter

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