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The Buzz on Bee Stings: The Bugs of Summer

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As I write this, my left foot is swollen, relentlessly itchy, and looks like a puff-pastry with toes. It’s all because of a bee sting that happened while I was walking in my backyard a few days ago. I had flip-flops on, but somehow a little bugger got my toe, causing me to release a host of profanities while the stinger released its venom. It was a not-so-subtle reminder that summer is here, and so are the bees. 


While we usually find bees happily flying through the air and minding their own pollination agenda, unfortunately we sometimes have those chance encounters that don’t end well. The discomfort and sleep deprivation (it’s that itchy) of my bee sting have me wondering if I could’ve prevented some of the symptoms. Should I have put on a paste of baking soda and water like my grandma always did? Or rely on over-the-counter drugs? And how can I prevent this from happening again? 


Bee Careful
Stinging insects are in the order Hymenoptera, which includes wasps (like yellowjackets), bumble bees, and honey bees, among others. The stinger originates in the egg-laying apparatus, so only females cause the pain. Bees, which have a barbed stinger that remains in the flesh, can only sting once in their life. Wasps, on the other hand, have a retractable stinger, so they can hit you multiple times.   


Most bees and wasps don’t sting unless provoked, disturbed, or defending a nest. As social insects, some members of the group have the sole function to protect the hive, so they launch into attack mode when they think their home has been disturbed. This became evident to me when a friend and I were trail running and one of us accidentally stepped off trail and onto a wasp’s ground nest. Before we knew it, we were covered in wasps letting loose on our legs and arms. When the nest is disturbed, wasps can send out a pheromone alerting their peers, and the entire group goes into defense mode. Faced with a swarm, we ran faster that day than ever before.


While honey and bumble bees (distinguished from wasps by their soft hair covering) usually avoid humans, yellowjackets are another story. Especially during the summer months, these yellow and black carnivorous wasps aggressively attack food, disturbing barbecues and picnics, and are more likely to attack than other bees and wasps.


Stung. Now What?
Though small, stingers pack a wallop of venom that is very painful when injected into skin. The chemical responsible for the pain from a honey bee sting is melittin, and its release causes a sharp pain, followed by a dull ache. The pain doesn’t last too long—a few minutes—but the after effects do. 


In response to the sting, our bodies try to flush the venom from the area. This causes swelling and redness in and around the area. The swelling might not show up for a few hours; mine took a whole day to show up and when it did, it consumed my entire foot. The swelling is uncomfortable, but nothing compared to the intense itching that is familiar to those who’ve ever had bad poison oak or poison ivy. The length of the symptoms depends on the severity of the reaction, but they usually subside within a week or so.


My symptoms are uncomfortable, but nothing compared to the more serious reactions some people have to stings. Only a tiny portion of population is allergic to wasp or bee stings, but they can be serious. Some signs of an allergic reaction are a large area of swelling, itching all over the body, and respiratory symptoms, such as chest tightness or shortness of breath. More severe reactions include lightheadedness or loss of consciousness, and gastrointestinal issues like nausea and diarrhea. According to the Mayo Clinic, it’s possible to have a serious allergic reaction to a bee sting even if you’ve been stung in the past and only had a mild reaction.


The most severe reaction, a medical emergency, is anaphylaxis. This occurs shortly after a bee sting and includes hives and itching all over the body, difficulty breathing, swelling of throat or tongue, fainting, and loss of consciousness. This type of reaction requires immediate medical attention, and those that know they are allergic should carry an emergency epinephrine auto-injector.


Another potentially serious but rare reaction happens after multiple stings. Though bee stings are rarely fatal, multiple stings can cause a person to feel very sick. According to University of California Integrated Pest Management, the toxic dose for bee stings is 8.6 stings per pound of body weight, requiring a normal person receive over 1,000 stings for risk of death. Young children, with lower body weights, and people with compromised heart or immune function may be at greater risk.


Pain Bee Gone
When a bee stings, it’s important to get the stinger out as fast as possible, as it can take a few minutes for all the venom to be released. The faster it’s out, the less venom that’s released, and the less severe the reaction. Though there are many techniques for removing the stinger, like using the dull end of a knife or edge of a credit card, I’ve always been able to simply pull it out with my fingers. A wasp’s sting won’t leave a stinger.


The site of the sting should be cleaned with rubbing alcohol or soap and water to prevent infection. A salve of baking soda and water or meat tenderizer (which neutralizes the venom) can also help reduce future swelling and pain. Ice packs help, and I’ve been using them frequently to numb the itch. Since a bee sting causes a histamine reaction, taking an over-the-counter antihistamine can be effective in reducing swelling, and an anti-inflammatory can help with the pain. Though there are many purported over-the-counter and home remedies for stings, the results are questionable. In a 2003 article in Slate magazine, the author does a semi-rigorous analysis of home and pharmaceutical treatment approaches. His conclusions? Caladryl (calamine with pain killer), baking soda mixed with vinegar, and meat tenderizer are “excellent” options, while toothpaste is the “best.” And the overall winner, beating out antihistamine and cortisone creams, sliced onions, and insect bite relief sticks, was ice. I’ve been religiously using an ice pack during the waking hours, though it’s not so convenient for bedtime.


Not the Bee’s Knees
The best way to avoid a bee sting is to mind where you’re walking and don’t provoke a bee or wasp. Some people have the unfortunate response of swatting their arms frantically when a bee or wasp is near, but this only increases the chance of being stung; the insect will feel like it’s under attack. If a bee is near your head or on your clothes, it’s probably attracted to a color you’re wearing, and once it figures out your lavender shirt isn’t a lavender flower, it will leave. Fast movements, like running away or swinging your arms, can provoke a wasp to sting. It’s best to remain calm and wait for the insect to leave or use a piece of paper to gently push it off your arm.


Bees and wasps are also attracted to odors, so avoid wearing perfume or heavily scented soaps when you’re outdoors. Clovers and other flowering ground covers are hot spots for pollinating bees (that’s where I got stung), so it’s best to wear shoes while walking across them. Yellowjackets especially are attracted to food, including sweet sodas, fruit, and meat, so they’re likely to come crash a summertime picnic if there’s a nest around. Keep food covered and the area free of spills and have a fly-swatter handy. Other wasps aren’t nearly as aggressive and might even help rid a yard of pests.


While I’m a bit peeved about a swollen stump for a foot, I do welcome bees in my yard, and plant flowers and shrubs I know they like. As any gardener knows, they more than make up for the occasional sting—if it wasn’t for these pollinators, we wouldn’t have fruit, vegetables, or healthy flowers. But next time I head outside, I’m looking down—and wearing tennis shoes.


Read another Bugs of Summer story.


The Bugs of Summer is a special series bringing you the lowdown on the flying, crawling, and sometimes stinging insects that roam our skies during the warm months. Whether they delight or annoy, we’ll give you the scoop on how to appreciate or avoid our six-legged friends.

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