Many people love bees and understand their value, but as soon as one comes buzzing by, their heart races, their arms start flailing and they run away.
When I gave beekeeping tours, I would explain what to do if a bee got close to you. The tour was outside and there was only a screen between a live, open beehive and the viewers. Whenever a poor, unsuspecting honey bee would make her way over to the viewers, people would swat. I would try my best to calmly remind people that swatting wasn't going to help and the bee wasn't interested in them, she just didn't understand what a screen was and why she couldn't go in a straight line back to her hive. Despite this, eventually someone would still swat at the bee.
Watch Our YouTube video About Getting Stung
Don't bee too hard on yourself if I'm describing you! It is only natural to want to go as far away as possible when you hear buzzing. Elephants are known to freak out when they hear buzzing and recordings of bees buzzing have been used by farmers to keep elephants from getting onto their property and causing a lot of damage.
Before we get into how to avoid getting stung we need to understand why bees sting.
Why Bees Sting
Bees Sting to Defend Themselves
Bees usually sting for two reasons - to defend themselves and to defend their hive. They do not want to sting. When away from the hive, a bee might sting if she is being swatted at, squished or feels threatened in some way. Think about when someone sees a bees flying around them. The bee is just flying around looking for food. Then, they smell something sweet and go over to check it out. It’s a bowl of fruit! They hover over it figuring out if they want to land and steal some sugar. But then a hand comes flying at them. It’s trying to hit them. Their vision is faster than ours so they get out of the way with no problem but now their life is being threatened so they fly at the body attached to the hand. They smell the breathe of a human, something that sends out an alarm. Some bees are more aggressive and are quick to sting. Other bees will hover around your face and give you a warning before stinging.
Most of the time, when you see a bee away from her hive, it’s a worker bee and she is out foraging. She is in the last couple weeks of her life. Her job is to gather nectar and/or pollen though sometimes she is out gathering water if it’s very hot out. She has a busy day gathering as much food as possible. She can carry over half her body weight in nectar in her honey sac. In order to fill that honey sac, she may visit up to 1,000 flowers! That's a lot!! An encounter with a scared human is the last thing she wants.
Another common time to see a bee sting is as a beekeeper when you open a hive, or encounter a hive in the wild.
Every hive has guard bees. Their job is to wait at the entrance and protect the hive from intruders. When you go near a hive, a guard bee may fly around you to deter you from opening the hive. Sometimes a hive is more aggressive and you’ll get stung one or more times immediately after removing the lid. Some hives are very calm and hardly ever sting when you open it up. I’ve found that you can tell the temper of a hive best in the first few seconds after taking the lid off. Wild hives aren’t used to being opened and so are much more likely to sting when you get close to them.
With any worker bee or queen, if you start to push down on her abdomen or stinger, she will try to sting you. I’m my experience, it looks more like a reflex as opposed to a conscious decision. Its common to get stung when you step on a bee because her reflex is to curl up into that stinging C-shape when pressure is put on her.
Tip! When thinking about where to put your hives keep in mind that it is very common to get stung on your foot when you step on a bee. This is especially important if you have kids or grandkids that like to run around in the grass with no shoes on. They may be getting stung on their feet more often than they would like to.
Do all bees sting?
The worker bee has a stinger with barbs on it. When she stings a mammal or any animal with a tough exterior, like skin, the stinger gets stuck and when she flies away, the stinger is removed from her back end. The stinger remains under the skin along with the venom sac. This venom sac, within 30 or so seconds, will start to pump venom into the victim’s blood stream. The worker bee dies from her wound shortly thereafter. Don’t be alarmed if you still see her walking around. She cannot sting again.
The queen has a stinger but it is not barbed. Therefore, she will not die if she stings.
Queens use their stinger to kill other queens. When they first hatch, they use their stingers to battle each other. This is how the hive ultimately ends up with just one queen. I have never seen a queen bee sting a beekeeper or met a beekeeper stung by a queen. However, I have seen a queen try to sting me. When I worked for a queen breeder, I was in charge of putting the queens in cages and a few gave me some real trouble. I tried to push them into the little hole in the cage and they would put their legs on either side of the hole, keeping themself from going in. I kid you not! So I tried to push her in by tapping on her butt (stinger). They always tried to sting me when I did that. However, I was never actually stung.
Bees do not die if they sting another bee!
This is because they have an exoskeleton and their stinger does not get stuck in the other bee. However, I do not believe a bee can survive the wound from getting stung by another bee. When you think about it, honey bees are pretty fascinating creatures. Who else is super busy all the time, but when they’re threatened, they have a sword behind their back that they can pull out with a moments notice??! They then stab the victim and die themselves. It’s a very dramatic world they live in.
How to prevent getting stung by a bee
When out and about, if you see a bee, leave her alone.
Don’t swat, don’t freak out, don’t run, don’t start breathing heavily. Stay calm, and stay still. If she’s in your face, put your hands over your eyes, nose and mouth and wait for her to go away. Bees are attracted to dark spots like eyes, nose and mouth. These are also sensitive spots to get stung. You can also walk slowly and calmly into the shade or through tall grass. You should not have to walk more than 50 feet away to get a non Africanized honey bee to leave you alone.
Tip! At a picnic, leave a little plate of burger or shrimp on the side for wasps so they leave your main table alone. Don’t leave open containers of sweets out, so you don't attract honey bees.
How to prevent getting stung when opening a beehive
1) Don’t be smelly! Avoid using strong smelling shampoo, lotion, deodorant, or perfume.
2) Don't let your bees get aggressive. Keep mite levels low and continue to add space to your brood boxes to prevent swarming. Bees get very aggressive before they swarm. See our blog post about COVID and preventing swarming.
3) Open the beehive between 10am and 3pm when most foragers are out.
4) Use a smoker if they seem agitated to mask alarm pheromone.
5) Take advantage of safety gear. Wear sting proof gloves, beekeeping suits or jackets and baggy clothes.
6) Move slowly and smoothly. Don’t drop things or throw things. Gently place a frame on the ground.
7) Bees hate to be brushed. Use a feather instead.
8) Try not to squish a bee. I have no science to back me on this but I swear that when you squish a bee a scent is released and it seems to upset the bees.
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(photo of plantain weed)
What to do if you’re stung by a bee
- Remove the stinger ASAP. Scratch the stinger out. DO NOT PINCH THE STINGER LIKE YOU'RE REMOVING A SPLINTER. If you’re stung on the face, you can just run your fingernail over the spot. Usually that gets it out pretty easily without even seeing what you’re doing.
- Next, neutralize the venom. Put a penny on the stung area after the stinger is out, the darker the better. Copper helps ease the affect of the venom. Other things to do is put honey on the stung area or mash up plantain weed to make a poultice and put that on the stung area. Other remedies beekeepers have shared with me are making a past with baking soda and water, making a paste with turmeric and water, dabbing a drop of tea tree oil on the spot, toothpaste with bicarbonate. or bentonite clay. I swear by the plantain weed and it can be found in many gardens as a common weed, but it is important to really mash it up to get the sap out of the leaves and then use a bandage to keep it on the sting. The pastes are a better solution if the sting is on your face or somewhere you can't use a bandage.
- Finally, to alleviate any itching, you can ice the area and keep adding the paste you made from step 2.
Why the Beekeeper Uses Smoke
As a beekeeper, one weapon in your arsenal is the smoker. The theory behind it is that bees use pheromones to communicate. One important pheromone is the alarm pheromone that is released when a guard bee needs help gettting rid of an intruder. That one guard bee I mentioned might be the one you have to watch out for when you immediately open the hives, but if she needs help, she’ll call her sisters to stop their task and come fight. This is no good! The smokes can be used to mask this pheromone so the hive doesn’t get too upset. When a hive is so upset that the alarm pheromone is being released, it can potentially lead to the queen being killed. This is not very common and not something to worry about during a regular inspection. It is something that might happen when moving bees, harvesting a lot of honey, when your bees are stressed out and already very aggressive, or when you’re doing something else to bother them for an extended period of time,
Using a lot of smoke also simulates a forest fire. This is only if you use a lot a lot of smoke. The bees think there is a fire and gorge themselves on honey. When a bee is full of honey, she cannot easily curl up into a C shape to sting. Keep in mind that it’s not good to do this often as it disrupts the entire hive.
Most of the time the smoke is used to get the bees out of the way. When you put a little puff of smoke on a frame covered in bees, the bees will go deeper into the box. This allows you to pull a frame out without squishing a bunch of bees. It also makes it easier to handle bees without needing gloves (something I highly recommend trying once you’re comfortable). Our article about the smoker explains how to use a smoker and light it so it stays lit.
When I first got started beekeeping, I read that if you're stung it sends an alarm to the other bees and they’re likely to sting you in the same spot. I haven’t found this to be true. If the bees seem agitated, you can smoke the area where you were stung, but most of the time, one sting won't upset the bees.
Developing an Immunity to Bee Venom
Most beekeepers develop an immunity to bee venom and don’t swell up like they did when they first started keeping bees, that’s what happened to me. I used to swell up pretty badly on the area I was stung. My first few years as a hobby beekeeper with two hives, I swelled up badly but was stung rarely. When I began working for an apiary and being around bees daily, I was stung often and developed an immunity within months.
Most people are somewhat allergic to bee venom and swell up after getting stung. This is normal. It is ok to still keep bees. However some people are highly allergic and those people need to carry an epi pen with them always and should not be a beekeeper.
Signs you’re highly allergic and may go into anaphylactic shock:
- Swelling in areas other than where you’re stung
- Heart palpitations
- Swelling of the face
- Skin reactions such as hives, flushed skin, or paleness
- Suddenly feeling too warm
- Feeling like you have a lump in your throat or difficulty swallowing
- Nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea
- Abdominal pain
- A weak and rapid pulse
- Runny nose and sneezing
- Swollen tongue or lips
- Wheezing or difficulty breathing
- A sense that something is wrong with your body
- Tingling hands, feet, mouth, or scalp
Some people develop a severe allergy to bee stings over time. They weren’t highly allergic for most of their life, but then are stung a few times and have a terrible reaction. It is always a good idea to pay attention to how you react to a bee sting. Anyone, at any point, can develop a severe allergy. It is unfortunate for the beekeeper when this happens.
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