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 I wheezed my way through a sleepless night and by morning discovered that my right pedal extremity had been replaced by a hairy pink inflatable.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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