How many times have you seen a crowd of people scatter for cover at the mere sight of a single buzzing bee? Perhaps you were even one of those people. After all, nobody likes a bee sting. And with good reason – they hurt. For some people, bee stings can even be deadly!
So, what causes bees to sting and what can you do about it?
Bees aren’t winged terrorists maliciously searching for their next victims. In fact, they are generally quite passive. Bees only sting when they feel their hive or themselves are being threatened. So, getting too close to or disturbing a hive or trying to physically assault a bee are really the only things likely to trigger their defense mechanism. Left alone, bees go innocently about their business, collecting nectar and spreading pollen. They are actually very beneficial insects that account for the pollination of many of our food crops, as well as producing delicious honey and several by-products that are useful to people.
For as passive as these little pollinators are most of the time, they do have a barbed stinger and will sting you if they’re provoked. When bees sting, they inject a small amount of toxin while simultaneously releasing alarm pheromones. These pheromones tell other bees to come quick, there’s danger in the area. This is where things can get dicey, as there can be 50,000 or more bees in just one beehive. A single bee sting won’t cause much more than minor pain, irritation, and itching for most people. Multiple stings, on the other hand, can spell trouble. According to the USDA, the average healthy person can receive 10 bee stings per pound of body weight and live to tell the tale. What this means, in theory, is that a 180-pound adult could be stung 1800 times and potentially walk away from it with their life.
Multiple bee sting incidents are thankfully rare, as are deaths due to bee stings. On average, 40 people die each year from bee stings. In most of these cases, the victim had a pre-existing allergy to bee venom. For these people, a single sting can lead to anaphylactic shock, requiring emergency treatment. Often, people with known bee allergies carry injectable epinephrine to counteract the effects of a possible bee sting. If you are stung by a bee and it elicits a severe allergic response, seek medical attention immediately!
For most people, however, one bee sting is not life-threatening, and treating it is fairly simple. The first thing to do is to determine whether the stinger is still embedded in the skin (it most likely will be). You can scrape it out with your fingernail, the edge of a credit card, or something similar. Never pull it out by pinching it with your fingers or tweezers. Doing so will squeeze more venom into your body. Once you’ve removed the stinger, wash the area with mild soap and cool water. Then ice the affected area in order to control swelling. If the amount of pain is still uncomfortable for you, spray an anesthetic on the wound that contains benzocaine to help numb the area. You may also want to take over-the-counter pain medication, but the pain really shouldn’t last long.
So, the next time you see a bee, remain calm and give her some space. Odds are, if you don’t mess with her (or her hive), she won’t mess with you.