I consider myself a fair beekeeper at least I try to be. I don’t go out of my way to get stung but it does happen. Used to be I would get stung about ten times a year and I would get little or no reaction to the sting. For me the worse place to get stung was on the hand, which would swell up pretty good and itch like crazy for about three days, by day 4 the hand would be back to normal.
A couple of years ago on a Sunday I went to my bee yard and managed to get stung right on the throat. I was a little surprised that I got no reaction at all. In fact an hour later you could not even tell I had been stung. Two days later I got stung on the arm and it was a different story.
Before I go into what happened I would like to explain what the difference is between a “local” reaction and a full blown “Anaphylactic” reaction. A local reaction can be itching or swelling in the area of the sting from mild to severe, however if you were to get stung on the arm and your leg started to itch that would be an Anaphylactic reaction and should be treated at a hospital. Also if you ever get stung and start getting heart palpitations you should seek medical attention.
If you get just a local reaction you can take children’s liquid Benadryl (liquid acts quicker) My Dr said not to worry about measuring out a dose, just “chug” straight from the bottle.
Back to my story.
So we headed out to the bee yard, all we were going to do was add some feeder buckets, ten minutes tops and I did not put my suit on (mistake #1). When I lifted the lid on the first hive two bees came out almost as one and stung me on my right arm within an inch of each other. I walked back to the truck and put my jacket on then back to the hive to add feeders. This only took maybe five minutes, once done we were back at the truck and I mentioned to my daughter that I may be having a slight reaction. My feet and scalp were itching pretty good.
We started to drive home (mistake #2) within two blocks I was itching all over and my heart was beating through my chest, I looked in the mirror and my face was as red as a cherry tomato. There was an ambulance station just a mile down the road and I decided to drive to them (mistake #3). Once we got there I told the medic I was a beekeeper and had got stung he took one look at me and told me to get into the ambulance.
Total elapsed time since the sting, maybe 15 minutes.
My daughter got to sit up front with the driver and we headed to the hospital complete with lights and sirens. Symptoms were itching and hives over 100% of my body, my heart was pounding and my lips started to go numb. I did not have any trouble breathing but the Dr later told me my throat had started to swell up. In the ambulance I was given several shots and that was followed up by more shots and a drip at the hospital, including a shot into my stomach. 2 ½ hours later I was leaving the hospital looking and feeling quite normal.
A day or so later I followed up the hospital visit with a visit to my Dr and allergy tests. The tests showed I was only allergic to honey bees. My Dr asked me if I was going to give up keeping bees and I was pretty emphatic that I was going to continue, so I was started on a course of injections which started at four times a week and is now down to once per month. I also carry an EPI pen when I go visit the hives, at least when I remember and in a little over two years I have had no reactions to any stings in fact I get less local reaction now than I used to.
I also always wear protective clothing and I try even harder to not upset the bees, I am down to six stings a year average and so far this year have not had any.
Anaphylactic reactions can vary in severity which is why it was a mistake on my part to drive when I was having the reaction. I know somebody who passes out within a minute or so of getting stung, this could have turned a bad situation into a much worse one.`
Q. I don’t know if I am allergic should I get tested?
A. You could but just because it comes back negative does not mean you will never become allergic
Q. How likely is it that I will develop an allergy?
A. Hobbyist beekeepers are 20% more likely to develop an allergy than a non beekeeper
Q. How effective is the allergy treatment?
A. In general sting allergy treatments are more effective than other allergy treatments
Q. I am not allergic should I carry an EPI pen?
A. Even if not allergic, a reaction can develop fast. You should always have one available
Q. Why does my EPI pen kit have two pens?
A. Each pen delays the symptoms for about 15 minutes; they give you two so you have time to get medical attention
Q. I thought I got stung and used an EPI pen and now I am not sure, what should I do. ?
A. Any time an EPI pen is used you should call 911 and get to the hospital
Q. My child likes to work bees what about them?
A. EPI pens come in two sizes, adult and child you should carry both
Q. My Dr says to wait to see if I have a reaction before prescribing an EPI pen?
A. Get a new Dr, symptoms vary but can be serious or lethal and you may not have time to wait and see
Are you allergic to bees and still a beekeeper? Let us know about your experience by posting in the comments below!
David Pearson is a fourth year journeyman-level certified beekeeper in Snohomish, WA, where he also runs Colonial Honey Farm. He is a member of the Master Beekeeper Program of the Washington State Beekeeper’s Association and also the WSBA’s Online Certification Coordinator for their Apprentice program.