Every beekeeper gets stung sometimes, it comes with the territory – you’re dealing, in summer, with boxes containing around 60,000 insects almost all of which will have an active stinging mechanism and some of them will use it during an inspection.
Bees will sting when they’re angry, when they’re distressed, or when they don’t like the way something smells. Sometimes they target a particular scent because it mimics an alarm pheromone, for example something that smells like pear-drops. Some colonies detest a particular fabric conditioner or shampoo, and it’s never good to wear strong perfume or aftershave when beekeeper. A little Olbas or Tea Tree Oil at the wrists doesn’t go amiss because it overwhelms and masks any other scents. A bee will only sting as a last resort – it may be painful to us but it is deadly to them.
Once a sting is in clothing it gives off pheromones that are targeted by other bees – they go to the site of the sting and add their own, so the area can be quickly covered with many stings. Wash your beesuit regularly to keep it clean, but be sure to wash it every time you’re stung on, or through, any part of your suit.
Reacting to stings
A “normal systemic reaction” to a sting, especially for new beekeepers, can be quite alarming. A sting on the face can mean very swollen eyelids or lips, and the swelling will stay for a day or so – itching like mad as the swelling reduces and inflamed tissue goes back to normal size. Symptoms can be eased by taking over-the-counter antihistamines and/or using after-bite type of sting creams or liquids.
A new beekeeper who normally wears a wedding and/or engagement ring, or any hand jewellery, is advised to check that the jewellery can be easily removed before actively keeping bees. A very swollen finger can mean these rings need to be removed by either a jeweller or medical practitioner, which can be quite alarming.
Over time reaction to stings generally reduces, and beekeepers of many years’ experience will notice they’ve been stung but have a minimal itch that’s no worse than a gnat bite.
There are rare occasions when reaction to a sting will be extreme and life-threatening. In these cases there may be fairly rapid swelling or redness around the area close to the sting, sometimes also a rash. If breathing become difficult and the person starts feeling light-headed or weak then this is a medical emergency and urgent treatment is required – dial 999 and ask for an ambulance.
Desensitisation treatment for anaphylaxis is, currently, available at both Bournemouth and Southampton Hospitals. It takes a few years to complete the full course of treatment, which is almost always successful. During, and subsequent to, treatment sufferers are prescribed an epipen.
Epipens are not available without prescription and should only ever be used on the individual they are prescribed for.
Any beekeeper who carries an epipen should advise the apiary trainer, apiary leader, or their bee buddy where that epipen is in case it’s needed. An epipen should never be left in a locked car during an apiary session.