Am I allergic to bee stings?

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Posted by Andy Sivell | Posted in Bee stings and bee venom, Beekeeping advice | Posted on 01-07-2012

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I wasn’t quite sure how to approach this post. I guess I’m looking for advice. Most of all I’m probably looking for reassurance. Two years of beekeeping it took me to produce any honey, something I used to joke about through clenched teeth. Oddly, I felt slightly more ashamed of the fact that in two years I also hadn’t been stung once. Call myself a beekeeper. That changed three weeks ago. And two weeks ago. And last Sunday. And now, wouldn’t you know it, it turns out that I’m probably allergic to bee venom…

I suffered what I believe is called an anaphylactic shock, although you’ll have to forgive me for not yet knowing the correct terminology, or for really knowing much beyond what happened to me. I was stung (for the third time) at about 10.30am near the crown of my right foot. It hurt like hell. Nevertheless, I hobbled around for the rest of the day, proudly showing the sting to my kids, and even a bemused visiting Deryck. At six o’clock that evening something really strange happened: within the space of five minutes I began coughing and wheezing. This was followed by my sinuses blocking up. For all the world it was like having a cold, but without any advance warning. At this stage my foot was painful, but not overly swollen. I went to bed and spent an uncomfortable night with a streaming nose, unable to breath except through my mouth.

The following morning my foot was a sight to behold. It looked as if someone had inflated it with a bicycle pump. As the day progressed it got worse. By lunchtime my wife insisted on driving me to the local pharmacy and, when that turned out to be closed, to the nearby doctors’ surgery. With my foot now gently fizzing I expected them to tell me to pull myself together and come back in a week’s time. Instead I had receptionists dashing in all directions, trying to locate a doctor or nurse. The doctor who saw me didn’t pull her punches. Without even examining the bee sting she questioned me closely about my breathing difficulties. Then she dropped the bombshell: time to give up beekeeping.

It’s now a week on. With steroids and anti-histamine tablets it took the foot four days to return to normal. I have an appointment to see an allergy specialist. Mrs S has done a little reading up and I’ve spoken to Paul, a local beekeeper who’s also allergic to bee stings. He said it’s about taking sensible precautions. He upgraded his bee suit and carries an EpiPen with him at all times. I went to Boots and asked them to show me an EpiPen. It scared the living daylights out of me. It doesn’t help that I’m needle-phobic.

I don’t want to give up beekeeping but I’d be lying if I didn’t confess that I’m a little nervous about continuing. I can’t be taking time off work or – as the doctor suggested – dialing 999 every time I get a bee sting. For once this isn’t a joke. I’d genuinely be grateful for any advice from other beekeepers who’ve faced the same thing.

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Comments (14)

Hi folks, in the short time I’ve been doing a beekeeping course this year I’ve had three stings. The first gave me a swollen finger for a couple of days but the second lead to a significant swelling of my hand. When my finger was so swollen the knuckle creases had started to stick out I went to A & E. but was told this reaction was normal . I knew it wasn’t life threatening or anaphylactic but it was pretty unpleasant and nasty. The only thing to do was cool it and elevate it. I did some personal research and found that high dose vitamin c (2000mg) can really help. As its not harmful I tried it. Within an hour of taking 2000mg there was relief to the pressure in the back of my hand. I repeated the dose twice the following day and each time saw a noticeable improvement. The next sting came a week later but I was ready for her. Vitamin c prior to working with the bees and a dose as soon as she hit me. My thumb was slightly swollen right next to the sting site but it didn’t even swell as much as the first sting. My husband has also taken vit c before working with the hives and two stings later- zero swelling.

Just to add it did make me nervous and aware that most people would think I was mad to carry on but the vitamin c has given me s lot more faith that I can work with bees and not end up having problems with the rest of my life. I found it really helpful to be able to see an improvement in the swelling rather than sitting about with cold compresses and elevation that didn’t make much difference. I did also take antihistamine but I’m convinced that the vit c really made the difference. I went on abee keeping day in Africa recently and had more confidence as a result of the C! Don’t give up yet!

I’ve been keeping bees for four years in which time I’ve been stung about a dozen times – on hands, face and feet. I’ve had both reactions – mild, where perhaps a two inch circle swells and beckes hard for a few days before disappearing and massive swelling such as you suffered, usually coming on over 6-12 hours. I did not experience the breathing difficulties you had however.

I have concluded that the massive swelling was down to bacterial infection facilitated by the sting. The histamine released by the body opens up the blood vessels and I imagine allows greater/faster spread of the infecting agent and I think the damage done by the venom locally also pre-disposes the tissue to infection. I’ve aslo noticed that local damage to the skin from recent sun burn also significantly pre-disposes a sting to lead to severe swelling. I now always wash stings as soon as possible with warm soapy water and take a single Cetirizine Hydrochloride tablet. This is a very cheap, effective, non-prescription anti-histamine. I have concluded that anti-histamine gells/ointments are useless and propriatery brands generally a lot less effective.

The other thing is I can honestly say that every sting I have received was my one fault – usually not suiting up properly for a ‘quick’ visit. I now always use veil/gloves/boiler suit and wellies.

I think it’s too early for you to give up – take sensible precautions and you should be fine. Also, be more selective about when you visit – weather conditions can aggrivate bees significantly so don’t feel you MUST visit to a schedule – even during swarming season – if the weather will make your bees more aggressive.

To help you understand what’s happening in your body, I recommend a book by a doctor/beekeeper named Dr Riches, ‘Medical aspects of beekeeping’, this can be purchased from the International Bee Research Assocation online shop: http://ibrastore.org.uk/index.php?main_page=product_info&cPath=1_5&products_id=78.

Also another shorter one by Dr Riches ‘Insect Bites and Stings – A Guide to Prevention and Treatment’ – http://ibrastore.org.uk/index.php?main_page=product_info&cPath=1_2&products_id=26.

If you continue beekeeping, please don’t go to inspect the bees alone!

Hi Andy, the reaction I now suffer from a bee sting is similar to yours. Six years ago when I first started to keep bees I did not get any swelling, it was when I got stung 12 times the reaction got worse. Addenbrooks did a allergy test which confirmed local reaction and advised me to take Cetirizine, antihistamine 2 tablets and 2 X Ibuprofen but I still get swelling for 3 days. It did worry me but now it doesn’t. Don’t give up

Andy,
Sorry to read your tale. I’m not a doctor but I believe that anaphylactic shock usually strikes within 20 minutes or so. You’ve obviously had a bad reaction & if it were me I would talk to my GP asking his advice on what precautions to take (apart from giving up BK). Ask about the value of having an epipen with you and when it should be used. Reactions usually get less with frequency but the opposite CAN be the case.
Of my 50 odd stings in the last 18 months two became red, swollen & painful within a few hours & lasted a couple of days. Breathing was not affected. If I was medically advised that my life was on the line I’d definitely give up otherwise suffer the occasional reaction.
PS. I read a letter in the BK press within the last 2 months advcating taping a copper coin onto a sting site to reduce the effect (check ‘copper’ coins that you keep for this purpose with a magnet)
Best wishes,
Ian

I really appreciate all the replies and good advice. I must again stress that my ‘diagnosis’ was based on a single visit to the doctor, who in fairness also immediately referred me to the allergy clinic at Addenbrooke’s (in 71 day’s time!) for confirmation. I know precious little about how bee stings affect the human body. I was just stunned by the reaction of the surgery staff, the doctor’s matter-of-fact advice that if it happened again I should waste no time dialing 999, and the size of the needle I might have to insert in myself! Your comments help put it into perspective.

They will always take breathing difficulty seriously but I suspect that the time frame is very long. The specialist will give you good advice. It’s always important to remember that each person can react differently each time and more severely for no apparent reason. There’s no test for anaphylactic reaction and no knowing if a subsequent reaction will be more or less severe. ( I got this from a doctor I know who does have anaphylaxis for bee sting.) medical staff will always encourage avoidance with situations like this.

Hi Andy – we well know your tale of woe – Richard had a very similar foot a few weeks ago – and now wears a pair of motorcycle leggings over his shoes when we inspect the colonies.
However, the doctor tells him that this was NOT an allergic reaction to venom – but that the sting also inserted some sort of bacteria – so that he ended up with a severe infection which caused the swelling which look much like yours and was followed by giant blisters. He was given penicillin for a week to kill the infection. So – your next sting may not necessarily produce the same horrible reaction.
I guess it makes sense to get checked for the allergy – but don’t give up until you have got a clear diagnosis – it could be a one-off.
By the way – the invitation to come and see our hives – with adequate protection – still stands

Good Luck – Ursula (Arkesden)

Hello Andy

I have just read your post.

I am allergic to wasp stings and have to carry with me during the wasp stinging season steroids and antihistamine just in case I am stung in the mouth. Are you sure that what you endured was an actual anaphylactic shock? Would it not have been more serious?

I take EVERY precaution when I am inspecting my bees, although luckily I don’t get as serious reaction from bee stings as wasp stings. I have a full beesuit – wear another layer of clothes underneath and double gloves. However Robert Pickford tells me that bees can sting you through any amount of clothes. I run a mile if a wasp comes anywhere near me.

I saw a top allergy specialist at Addenbrooke’s (this was before I decided to keep bees) as my husband was concerned about my reaction to a wasp sting. I can’t remember her name, but if you ‘google’ Addenbrooke’s allergy clinic on their website I am sure you will find her identity, however there is a long waiting list to see her. I rather jumped the queue as she is a client of my husband (he is a vet).

Andy – get this in perspective. You could be stung by a bee at any time – not just your bees. You do need to find out if you could suffer a severe reaction. You will be nervous now when you inspect your bees and they will sense this and this will not help.

I am also in my second year beekeeping. Mine have swarmed twice this year and I am just wondering whether it might be less hassle to buy some jars of honey!

If you want to discuss this please telephone me you can find my number listed in the Saffron Walden Division membership list.

Don’t give up!

Jan

Andy
Theres no getting round it, if you keep bees you will get stung. I think you may wish to rethink or talk to your doctor about an epipen. One beekeeper I knew had such a reaction and often the epipen was enough, however he still had time off work and nausea and swelling if he was stung.

Hi,

Sorry to hear about your stings! Did you take an antihistamine tablet and put on antihistamine cream as soon as you were stung? Just wondered whether that would nip your reaction to the sting in the bud before it really takes hold?

Funnily enough, today is the first time I haven’t got stung by my bees! Haven’t had them very long but they really go for me so I am wearing thick washable leather gloves now :o)

I put cream on straight away, but didn’t take an antihistamine tablet because we didn’t have any and because of the delayed reaction. We’ll keep antihistamine tablets on standby from now on. Interestingly, the doctor dismissed the cream as next to worthless.

Sorry for your setback! Keep liquid Benedryl antihistamine handy – it works faster. The allergist may slowly desensitize you to your allergy, if it is one – may be those bees had been foraging on a toxic plant that you had a reaction to. Even a good bee suit, wet with sweat, can be stung through. Working with a commercial beekeeper for years, I’ve had maybe 12 stings in a day – now they don’t affect me, unless on my face. May have to re-queen those bees as they are ‘hot’ – I prefer gentle Carniolans. Be mindful of behavioral/weather precautions to avoid stings. Good luck – we need all the beekeepers we can get!

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