I AM allergic to bee stings

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Posted by Andy Sivell | Posted in Bee stings and bee venom, Beekeeping advice | Posted on 12-11-2012

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Bee sting on right hand

My swollen right hand, twelve hours after being stung by a honey bee, and without the benefit of medication. The sting is faintly visible near the wrist, between thumb and forefinger. It’s circled in pen.

In July 2010 I took up beekeeping. Exactly two years later I was stung for the first time. A week later I was stung for only the second time, and a week after that the third. Then things got a little weird. Not until a whole eight hours had passed following the third sting did I experience a reaction. Of course, the first two stings hadn’t gone unnoticed: both hurt and there was some localised swelling. But the third sting was different. A half day after being stung in the foot, and not inconvenienced to the extent even of having to give up mowing the lawn or pushing around a wheelbarrow (dammit), my head suddenly registered that something was wrong. I had difficulty breathing. I wheezed my way through a sleepless night and by morning discovered that my right pedal extremity had been replaced by a hairy pink inflatable. I’d had what appeared to be an allergic reaction. Perhaps more alarmingly, barely 24 hours later I’d also received a clear instruction from my doctor to give up beekeeping.

My subsequent plea for advice on whether or not I should continue generated a record number of comments from fellow beekeepers. All were positive. The overwhelming majority advised me not to give up. Many included accounts of readers’ own, similar reactions to bee stings. Some included detailed information about medication, and a few suggested novel remedies, such as placing a copper coin on the sting, or heating the affected area with a hair dryer.

For a while I did nothing. Nor did I go anywhere near the bees. Then I did what most people in receipt of an unwelcome medical opinion do: I went and got a second medical opinion. It echoed much of the advice I’d already received via this blog: carry on but be sensible, upgrade my bee suit, always have someone check overalls for stray bees before disrobing, and have medication on stand-by. The one area in which my two doctors were in complete agreement, however, was that I should attend an allergy clinic for further tests.

Now as it happens, one of the leading allergy clinics in the country is just up the road from me in Cambridge. So early last month I presented myself at the reception desk of the catchily titled ‘Clinic 2a’ at Addenbrooke’s Hospital.

I was welcomed by a succession of nurses, all of whom had apparently been schooled by call centre staff. Each one introduced themselves by their first name, which I immediately forgot, and regularly punctuated their sentences with mine, presumably lest I forget that too. None could resist cheerily informing me that every customer that morning had been a beekeeper.

Eventually I was introduced to a slightly more senior-looking nurse, whose name I again forgot, but whose step-by-step description of what I was about to experience left an indelible impression. Taking my right forearm she wrote the numbers one to ten down it in biro, before pricking the skin surface next to each number with increasing dosages of, first bee, then wasp venom. I was then invited to wait in the office next door for 20 minutes, to see whether there was any reaction.

‘Seeing whether there was any reaction’ involved one of the first nurses coming back and measuring the inflammation around each pin prick with what looked like one of those plastic widgets hardware stores sell to gauge the size of wood screws. I could tell that she was disappointed. Clearly I wasn’t inflaming well. She disappeared and came back with more bee venom, before adding an eleventh dot. Twenty minutes later I was ready to gnaw my arm off. The sensation took fully 24 hours to subside.

Clearly we’d established that I’m not very quick on the uptake. More to the point, we’d apparently also put beyond doubt that I am allergic to bee venom. The nurses were all delighted. As a reward, I was going to finally meet a doctor.

The specialist who saw me was a dead ringer for a former girlfriend, which was a little unsettling as she looked like the girl I dated 20 years ago, whereas I now look like a balding guy in his late forties. It didn’t help that when it came to taking the inevitable blood sample my needle phobia meant that she insisted on holding my hand. That just felt plain wrong.

The existence of my allergy seemed to interest her far less than the time it took my head to register an assault upon my extremities. I had, since being referred, incurred a fourth bee sting on my big toe. That time I had removed the stinger using a credit card, and taken the prescribed Fexofenadine Hydrochloride (antihistamine) and Prednisolone (steroid) – all within five minutes. The subsequent absence of any reaction at all had been as much of a surprise as a relief. Twenty-four hours later I couldn’t even locate the puncture wound.

When I relayed this to my doctor she seemed almost put out, and promptly instructed me to delay taking any form of medication next time, “just to see” whether in my case delayed reactions were the norm. (They are. A fifth sting saw my hand inflate like a pink washing-up glove after 12 hours).

Notwithstanding the unlikelihood of my keeling over on the spot when next assaulted by Apis irata, I was judged a suitable candidate for ‘desensitisation’ therapy. Next summer I’m to report to Addenbrooke’s Clinic 2a every week for an 11-week course of treatment. Still, with all those other beekeepers around I shall be in good company. I wonder if Cambridgeshire BeeKeepers’ Association has an Addenbooke’s division yet?

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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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