Honey Bee Safety

Stings, Allergies, & Africanized Honey Bees

Ouch! I got stung. What should I do?

First figure out if it was a bee or a wasp. Wasps have smooth stingers and they can sting multiple times. Female honey bees or workers have barbed stingers. When they sting, they leave the stinger in your skin with a venom sack and a muscle that continues to pump venom from the sack into your body. The quicker you remove the stinger, the less your reaction will be. It may be a small consolation but a worker bee sacrifices herself when she leaves a stinger in your skin.

As an aside, when your neighbor accuses your bees of stinging his children, ask if there was a stinger. Wasps, hornets, and yellow jackets do not leave stingers as worker bees do. Your neighbors will presume that every yellow, flying, stinging thing is one of your bees.

If you try to remove the stinger by pinching it, you will squeeze the contents of the venom sack into your body. Instead, scrape the stinger using the blade of your hive tool, a credit card, or even a finger nail.

Once you remove the stinger, smoke the area or rub grass into it to mask the smell. The stinging unit also contains a pheromone gland whose scent communicates "STING HERE" to the other worker bees. Clever bees!

"When I do get stung, it almost always occurs when I am doing something stupid like weed-wacking grass in the apiary without wearing any protection. I rarely take a bad sting from hive manipulations any more. I do not wear (nor recommend) heavy leather gloves because your loss of finesse only aggravates the bees more. I go gloveless if the bees are happy or I wear dish washing gloves if they are not. If the bees are really cranky, I walk away to return another day. I always wear a veil when inspecting hives because a sting to the eye is not worth the risk."

Tom Rearick, MABA member & Master Beekeeper

I think I am allergic. I got stung and it hurts really bad. Am I allergic?

Pain, redness, itching, and swelling at the sting site is normal but it does not constitute an allergic reaction. Most people can tolerate up to 25 bee stings without requiring medical attention. That would be a lot of stings for a normal bee colony but not for a wasp or hornet nest or an Africanized Honey Bee colony (see section on killer bees below).

"When I get stung, it hurts. A lot. I swell up like a balloon for a week. So much for the theory that beekeepers are immune to bee stings. Although very unpleasant, I am not allergic. My swelling is a (large) localized reaction to honey bee venom that persists for several days. I think a more common reaction for most beekeepers is to have a small, localized reaction that stops hurting after a few hours. Some beekeepers get less sensitive over time and others more."

Tom Rearick, MABA member & Master Beekeeper

About 3 out of every 100 people stung by bees or wasps have a systemic or allergic reaction which can include hives (red patches on the skin located apart from the sting site itself that stings and itches), nausea, the inability to breathe (anaphylaxis), tongue swelling, and unconsciousness. Only 8 out of every thousand sting victims experience the life-threatening anaphylaxis. Anyone with these symptoms should seek immediate emergency medical care. Persons known to be allergic often carry prescription epinephrine (also known as adrenalin) which comes in a self-administering dose called an EpiPen.

About 40 deaths in the US occur each year due to insect stings (including bees and wasps). This is slightly more than mortality from dog bites (34 in 2011) but much less likely than deaths from falling from a ladder or scaffolding (465 in 2011) or death from motor vehicle accidents (35,303). So you are 880 times more likely to die in a motor vehicle accident than from an insect sting.

For more information on bee stings, see the following references:

What are Killer Bees? Are they in Georgia?

Killer bee is a popular name for Africanized Honey Bees (AHB). They are a hybrid of African and European honey bees, but they look the same as our common (European) honey bee. Both types of bees sting only once and their venom is no different. But the feature that makes Africanized honeybees dangerous is that they defend a wider area around their nest and respond faster and in greater numbers than their European cousins.

As of 2016, one death due to AHB occurred in south Georgia in 2010 (see link to article below) and AHB have been found in two south Georgia Counties. The spread of AHB northward appears to be limited by colder climate. AHB is more commonly found in Florida and the southwestern states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and California. However, any unknown or feral bee colony should be treated as if it were AHB. AHB colonies have made their way to ports up and down the eastern seaboard on container ships.

Death from AHB occurs when the number of stings is so great that the victim dies of venom poisoning. According to the USDA, the average healthy person can safely tolerate 10 stings per pound of body weight. This means that although 500 stings could kill a child, the average adult could withstand more than 1100 stings. Children, elderly, and the mobility-challenged are especially at risk. A AHB colony can deliver more a thousand stings and have been known to kill horses.

“The main thing we need to get out to the public is, (if you are pursued by bees) you need to run. But the human response is to stand and swat. Or people will get in a car, and some bees get in with them, and they freak out and get back out. But 10 bees inside the car is better than 10,000 bees outside the car.”

Jennifer Berry, UGA Apicultural Research Coordinator & MABA member

What can be done to reduce the risk and spread of Africanized Honey Bees?

Beekeepers play a pivotal role in protecting the public from Africanized Honey Bees (AHB). Legislators that unwisely outlaw beekeeping put their constituents into greater danger.

  • Educate the public. Beekeepers speak at schools and public events to educate the public on the benefits of honey bees and how to avoid contact with AHB.
  • Monitoring for AHB. Beekeepers can tell if AHB genetics are making their colonies hot. Parasitic swarms of Africanized bees can invade a colony of European honey bees and take over the nest. In that event, the beekeeper can simply replace the queen with a queen of pure European genetics. Beekeepers should mark all queens with paint or numbered tags in order to determine if a queen has been replaced.
  • Slow down the advance. European honey bees and AHB compete for the same limited forage. By maintaining an active, healthy population of European honey bees, beekeepers provide a buffer to slow the advance of AHB.

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