Bee Stings

IT IS ADVISABLE TO SEEK THE ASSISTANCE OF A MEDICAL PROFESSIONAL ANYTIME SOMEONE IS STUNG.   Why They Sting

Stinging insects such as bees, wasps, yellow jackets and hornets use their stings to subdue prey (primarily insects and spiders) and to defend themselves or their colony. While various species display different degrees of aggressiveness, the same basic reasons for attacking and stinging are the instinctive desire to feed themselves or their colony members and to protect and defend their colony.

Honey Bees  

Honey bee castes (types of specific individuals in the insect society) differ in appearance depending on whether they are drones, workers or the queen. The caste most often seen is the workers that are about 3/8-inch long, have four wings that are clear and are colored black or brown intermixed with yellow. Their abdomen is larger than the thorax or head. Honey bees are not overly aggressive and generally only sting when provoked or when they sense their colony is threatened. When that occurs, honey bees normally sting in large numbers. Honey bees typically make their nest above ground in sheltered locations and their social colonies may number into the tens of thousands.

Bumble Bees  

Bumble bees are about ¾-inch long; large in girth; more hairy and larger than honey bees; have yellow hairs on the thorax; and a rounded abdomen. Bumble bees typically make their nest underground, but some species will nest above ground in sheltered, secluded places. Bumble bee colonies are much smaller than honey bee colonies.

  Africanized Honey Bees  

Africanized honey bees appear to be almost identical to honey bees except for some characteristics that require a bee expert to observe. However, Africanized honey bees are extremely aggressive and may sting in huge swarms. They tend to build their colonies in places that are similar to where wild honey bee colonies are located. While domesticated and wild honey bees tend to swarm in the spring, Africanized honey bees are likely to swarm from the early spring to mid-fall.

  General Sting Symptoms

Unlike wasps, yellow jackets and hornets, honey bees, Africanized honey bees and bumble bees sting and inject venom only once and usually die within minutes after delivering their sting. But when they sting, an attractant pheromone (chemical trigger) “marks” the victim and this pheromone attracts more bees to attack and sting. Honey bees may sting a victim several dozens of times within a short time period, while an attack from Africanized honey bees may involve a mass-stinging attack of hundreds or even thousands of bees.

Bees, except for the bumble bees, leave the stinger and attached venom gland where the stinger is imbedded into the skin. Once the person or pet is removed to a safe location, remove the stingers by scraping off the imbedded stingers rather than squeezing to remove the stinger. Squeezing with tweezers tends to force more venom into the skin. The usual symptoms and physical appearance of bee stings include:

  • Stinger left behind – except for bumble bees
  • Pain
  • Localized welt or elevation of the skin surface around the sting site
  • Central white spot where the stinger punctured the skin
  • Potential for serious allergic reactions – nausea, vomiting, chest pain, swelling of the face or mouth, difficulty swallowing, difficulty breathing, convulsions. In general, a person stung by a bee is more likely to develop subsequent serious reactions if they had a prior allergic reaction.
Categories of Sting Reactions and Symptoms Localized reactions. These are the most common types of reaction to a bee or wasp sting. Symptoms include pain, swelling, warmth, redness at the site of the sting and itching.   Common symptoms begin soon after a sting and may last several hours. Excessive swelling, which occurs in large local reactions, may last up to a week. Other symptoms related to large local relations include nausea and fatigue.
  1. These symptoms do not cause major medical problems and are usually limited to or are very near the sting site.
  2. Secondary bacterial infections. This type of skin infection develops if the sting site is frequently scratched and bacteria are given a suitable condition in which to develop. Failure to adequately clean, disinfect and medicate sting sites enable infections to occur.
Systemic (affecting the whole body) allergic reactions. These reactions occur in people or pets that have produced a type of antibody, known as immunoglobulin E, against the same insect venom from a previous sting. Systemic allergic reactions are critical medical issues, but occur in a very small percentage of stings. Symptoms of systemic allergic reactions include swollen red bumps on the skin, flushing of the skin and difficulty breathing due to swelling of the pharynx epiglottis and narrowing of the bronchial passages. The reactions may vary in severity from mild skin irritations to life-threatening symptoms. Anaphylaxis, the most severe immunologic reactions, occur more commonly in males and people less than 20 years of age.  In severe reactions, symptoms of hypotension, such as low blood pressure, circulatory trouble, and shortness of breath, may result in life-threatening cardiorespiratory arrest.
  1. Most people who develop anaphylactic reactions have experienced previous stings with few problems, but once an individual has experienced an anaphylactic reaction, the risk of having a recurrent episode is above 50 percent.
Toxic reactions occur when there is an excessive amount of venom in the body, which usually only happens when individuals experience multiple stings. These toxic reactions are a direct response to toxins in venom rather than the immune system's response.
  1. Symptoms can include fever, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, headache, fainting and convulsions. Swollen red bumps, rash and other skin-related symptoms are less common in toxic reactions than in systemic allergic reactions. Because stinging insect venom is a strong stimulant that causes the immune response, people who have experienced toxic reactions may produce antibodies to the venom and be at risk for future systemic anaphylactic reactions to stings.
  2. Delayed reactions occur, but are uncommon and may show up days to weeks after the sting. These reactions constitute less than 1 percent of all reactions to insect stings. Delayed reaction symptoms can vary a great deal and may include inflammation of the brain (encephalitis), the nerves (neuritis), blood vessels and kidneys as well as blood clotting disturbances.