Baby, I know!
One of our favourite stories to tell about our first summer of beekeeping is how we managed to escape 5 months of hands in a hive without a single sting for either of us. A perfect track record and a great experience to share with those who might be a bit more nervous around bees.
It all changed one warm winter day when some of the bees were braving the outdoors to take a chance and stretch their wings. We watched from the window as one little bee took off out of the hive, circled once and then fell to the ground. Sad to see one of the bees go down on such a nice day, we rushed out to “save” her. A. picked her up in his hand and she must have liked the warmth because she didn’t want to leave! Tried to shake her back on to the landing board of the hive, but there was no convincing her to head home. Finally, A. went to flick her off of his palm and right at that moment, she panicked and stung him. We saw it all like it was in slow motion, her stinger pointing straight down and then her bottom twitching towards his hand and, in a split second, flying off and falling to the ground again.
We were able to see the stinger and venom sac pulsing a little bit, releasing more venom into the sting before A. scraped it sideways to remove it from his hand. Poor little bee was slowly fading away in the snow and the surprising thing was how long she kept on living even after twisting herself away from the sting.
Who would’ve thought our first sting would be in the middle of the winter!
Bee venom and alarm pheromones
Pheromones play a large role in the stinging behaviour of bees. The two main pheromones are iso-pentyl acetate and 2-heptanone. 2-heptanone comes from the mandibular gland of the worker bee, but only the bees that have guard and forge duties will have this chemical present in the gland. Iso-pentyl acetate is associated with the stinger itself and smells like banana oil (you might be able to smell it after being stung!) When the bees are distressed, they might grip on to the comb or your clothing with their mandibles and release 2-heptanone and when a bee stings (or even just open their sting chamber and protrude the stinger) iso-pently acetate will be released. The pheromones alert other bees and put them on guard for additional stings.
The venom itself (aka apitoxin) is made of eight chemicals, with the most important ones being histamine, hyaluronidase and lecithinase. A substance called melittin makes up 50 – 75% of the venom (depending on who you talk to) which is an anti-inflammatory and induces cortisol steroid production in the body, disrupts cellular walls and destroys cells. We know the effect histamines have in the body, if you’ve ever experienced allergies and had to take an anti-histamine to get rid of the symptoms. Histamines trigger and inflammatory response and will cause adrenaline to be released into the body, your heart will start beating a bit faster and your blood will flow faster. Lecithinase damages red blood cells and inhibits clotting and hyaluronidase is an enzyme that can both harm the molecules in synovial fluids that protects your joints but is also implicated in improving rheumatic disease! It primarily functions to dilate capillaries and spread the inflammation of the sting.
The stinger is barbed, which means that the sting organs are usually left behind after the bee flies away. According to the ABC and XYZ of Bee Culture, if you are stung and have the wherewithal to calmly watch the process, you’ll often see the bee tried to fly away but realize that she’s stuck and then proceed to walk in a circle around her stinger and twist herself free from it.
The stinger is made of three parts, the outer shell and two barbed husks that slide inside of it. The muscles around the stinger and the venom sac operate like a little pump that allows the stinger to slide quite deep into the skin and then keep pumping venom from the sac even after the bee has taken off. This is why you want to get that stinger and the venom sac out of your skin as quickly as possible. If you’re fast enough, you may not even remember being stung within an hour or two, but if you don’t remove the stinger and allow all of the venom to be pumped into your skin, you can feel the effects for days after!
How to deal with a sting
In the ABC and XYZ of Bee Culture, AI Root et al talk about how interesting it is to calmly observe all the stages of a bee sting as they happen – though that kind of patience is not easy! When stung, you want to remove the stinger as quickly as possible, before all of the bee venom is pumped into your body. Don’t pinch the stinger and attempt to pull it out, you’ll only end up squeezing more of the venom into your skin. Instead, use a knife-edge or, in a pinch, your fingernail and try to scrape the stinger out sideways from underneath the venom sac.
Alternating hot and cold compresses on the area affected by the sting will help reduce the symptoms and reduce the swelling. If there’s any suspicion that you might have an allergy, you should have an epi-pen handy and be ready to give a dose of adrenaline. First aid tip: even if the epi-pen makes you feel better, you still should go to the hospital if you have a full-blown allergy as the effects can wear off quickly and you’ll need further treatment!
Bee-keepers will, after being stung a certain number of times, develop a sort of immunity to bee stings and rarely feel more than a slight swelling and little pain after a sting. How long this takes will vary from person to person, but one should always be cautious as too many bee stings at once can take its toll on your heart even if you have been stung frequently in the past and feel a certain amount of immunity!
From “Beekeeping in Western Canada” (Gruszka, 1998), “it is often said that the sting is only 1/8 inch long – the other six inches are your imagination”.