Books and beekeeping videos barely skim the surface when addressing bee stings. So I decided that I would share the facts and some of the experiences I have had with bee stings.
Ouch! Probably one of the biggest obstacles that discourages people from keeping bees is that bees can sting! Many people are afraid of honey bees, and some people are scared to death of them. So, in this lesson, I want to talk frankly with you about bee stings. I want to give you the honest truth about bee stings, and how to avoid most stings. And, I want to bolster your confidence so that even if you do get stung, it ain't that big-a deal!
First, I'm not referring to Africanized bees in this lesson. I'm speaking mainly from the experience I have had with Italian bees. We sell and recommend Italian honey bees because they are very calm and good honey producers. So keep in mind that this lesson does not apply to Africanized bees.
When I first started keeping bees in 1994 it wasn't that I was scared of being stung, but I just didn't want to be stung. But to be honest, back then as a new beekeeper I had a fear that I would make a wrong move, and suddenly 60,000 bees would all sting me at the same time. That never happened. Most of my stings have been what I call, clumsy stings--stings you get from being clumsy in the hive. So, I'll share some important tips on working the bees to cut down on stings.
Does it hurt to be stung? YES, and though you can develop a resistance toward the bee venom, I don't think you can ever ignore the pain of a bee sting. To me, it does not hurt as much as a wasp or a yellow jacket, and certainly nothing like a bumble bee. How bad the pain is felt is determined by where on your body you are stung. There are some tender spots that really hurt, like the temple on the head, or any where on the face or head for that matter. I really don't notice the pain as much when I get stung on the fingers, arms, legs or back.
No matter how long you keep bees and how often you get stung, it hurts. The pain reminds me of getting a wood splinter. It's that kind of pain. But, it doesn't hurt all that long. For me, it hurts the most for about 1 minute, then the pain comes and goes until it is over, usually within 5 minutes.
I sting myself! That's right. To stay more immune from the venom I usually sting myself several times a week--that is if I don't naturally take a few while working my hives. It's my own personal opinion, but I believe bee venom from honey bee stings has made me a much healthier person.
Whenever I have a stiff join or what seems to be arthritis, I'll sting myself in that area. In a day or so, I'm cured! Call me crazy but I love bees so much, I even don't mind being stung. To sting myself, I catch a few bees, place them in a jar with air holes, and place the jar in the refrigerator for about 5-10 minutes. This slows the bee down allowing me to grasp her by the wings and hold her in anticipation of her warming up. Then, once she is warm and active, I placer her on the spot and slightly back her up holding her by her wings. It doesn't take long and the stinger is in.
Many MS and patients with certain forms of arthritis have found bee venom therapy to work well.
On days when I'm in the yards working my bees, I don't have time to think about getting stung. In fact, when I am stung, I am surprised, because I'm so engrossed in the work at hand. I believe that's why I'm not stung all that much. Because I approach the hive with confidence rather than fear. Just like my hound dogs, I believe my bees know me. They are used to me. They are very smart. They sense me walking up to their hive. They seem to be able to understand what I am doing. My bees can read me and I've learned to read them.
Can you avoid all bee stings? Maybe, I'm not sure. I suppose if you wear a complete bee suit and you don't have any holes, and you wear gloves, you could possibly never be stung. But, remember, as a beekeeper stings are probably going to be part of the territory. Below is a video of my son who helps me work our bees. He always dresses in full gear every time. He never works bees unless he is wearing thick gloves, boots and has every gap taped. But, as you can notice in the video, he is not gentle in working bees. Notice how he throws down the hive tool and bangs the sifting screen on the hive. If you're going to work hives like that, fast and aggressively, you'd better dress the way he does. Okay, here's the confidence building part. Don't let a tiny little stinger keep you from enjoying such a wonderful hobby or sideline business! Beekeeping is a blast. The stinger on a honey bee is very small, measuring only 1.5 mm. Keep in mind that once a bee stings you, she cannot sting you again, and she dies. So it is a last resort for a bee to sting. Cowboy-up and don't be afraid to take an occasional sting. It is much more painful for me to pick raspberries than to work my hives. Learn to be calm and steady when you are stung. Don't jump, scream, run or drop everything in your hands.
What to do when you are stung?
Remain calm, scrape out the stinger, puff some smoke near the area where you were stung, back away from the hive for a couple of minutes and then get back on the horse! The reason you want to scrape off the stinger is to reduce the amount of venom that is injected. Most people pinch the stinger and then pull it out. But, by pinching the stinger you pinch the venom pouch, releasing the full dose of venom. But, if you scrape the stinger out with a credit card or your hive tool, you lessen the venom dose, thus the reaction to the sting is minimized as well.
The reason you puff some smoke around the area where you were stung is because a sting can alert other bees to sting. I've only had this happen one time, where one sting resulted in several bees stinging the same spot, my ankle. That's the day I learned not to wear black socks when working hives.
Mostly I get one sting, and none of the other bees seem to care. But, the smoke can reduce the alarm odor that is given off with a sting. It's good to step back a few feet from the hive for a minute or two, not so much to let the bees settle down, but so that you can settle your nerves and see that everything is okay and return to work the bees with confidence, or to assess if it's a bad time to work your bees.
When you are stung, you must immediately assess if the weather is the cause. Listen! Do not work your bees on cloudy, cool or very windy days. Working bees prior to a storm coming in always invites a sting.
So let's go through some things to help reduce stings:
1) Choose a good day. A good day is warm, very sunny, high pressure or barometric on the rise, and not real windy.
2) Choose a good time. Between 10am and 2pm Working bees prior to 10 a.m. or after 2 p.m. invites stings simply because there are more bees at home. Between 10 and 2, the foragers are out, the hive is smaller and you can better manipulate your hive.
3) No perfume, hairspray or heavy soap smell. If you get all prettied-up to work your hive, it could turn ugly. But, bad body odor can also draw some stings. So, be clean, but don't over do it.
4) Never wear dark clothing! Bees sting dark areas. They resist white. Wear white, especially socks if you do not wear boots.
5) Do not swat at a bee that is buzzing around your head. Swatting will NOT make a bee go away. It has the opposite effect. She will become much more aggressive if you swat at her and she will pursue you if you run. Bees can fly up to 18 mph. Can you out run a bee? No. So, be still, and wait and see if she will go away. Usually a guard bee is the first to buzz your face, making a louder than normal buzzing sound to intimidate you. It works too! But, no matter how loud she buzzes, the stinger is the same size and doesn't hurt any more or any less so do not fall for the buzzing intimidation. Be still and see if she will get tired and retreat. I've worked several hours in a bee yard with the same bee buzzing my face. She never did anything more than "got in my face" but my veil held her at bay and I ignored her and finished my work. DON'T SWAT!!! I know it is a natural reaction, but DON'T DO IT! Got it? You cannot swat at honeybees!!
6) Avoid sweating or breathing heavily onto the bees. Don't hold your breath. Breath normally, just avoid breathing close up on a frame. On hot and humid days, lean over slightly to the side of a hive so that if you sweat, it will not fall onto the bees.
7) Bees are most calm during a nectar flow. However, I don't like to interrupt the hive operation during a strong nectar flow because this could reduce my honey production. But, they are the most calm when the flow is on. By flow, I am referring to a time when several floral sources are producing an abundance of nectar.
8) Always use a smoker! You MUST smoke your hive. Smoke the hive, but be gentle and don't over smoke them. A little smoke goes a long way to calm a hive. Do not work your bees without smoking them! Untreated burlap makes good smoker fuel. I use pine needles and mulch as my smoker fuel.
9) Calm and gentle movements. No sudden movements and by all means don't drop a frame or a hive tool on the bees. Bees can't hear, but they are very sensitive to vibrations. If you do drop something or tip a hive over, back away slowly, stand still if you are not being pursued heavily, smoke and try to get things back together once the bees have calmed down. It happens to the best of us.
10) Always wear a hat and veil. You may not care about being stung below your head, but you cannot risk being stung in the face or eye. Wear a hat and veil or you will regret it. And if you want to avoid being stung, wear protective gear and duct tape all clothing gaps.
What's the difference between a normal reaction and a life threatening reaction.
Some people say they are allergic to bees because they turn red, itch and swell. Everyone does! Only those who have built up an immunity don't swell and itch. By the end of the season, I don't turn red or swell anymore. But after the winter is over, I swell, itch and turn red where I am stung until my immunity is restored. The swelling can travel. If I am stung on my arm, the swelling usually travels several inches in one direction from the sting point. This is a normal reaction. The itching will stop, after three days the swelling will start to go down. It can take up to one week for the swelling to be completely gone. This does NOT mean you have a life threatening allergic reaction to honey bees. It means your body reacted in a normal way to the bee venom. A fellow was helping me work my hives without a veil and he was stung on the lip. His lip got huge! It was cloudy, we had no smoke and he had no veil...go figure. So don't panic when the swelling starts. It is normal and it will eventually go down. But do remember, if you are stung on your hand, remove your rings immediately in preparation of the swelling.
A life threatening reaction is when your body goes into what is called Anaphylactic Shock. Few people react in this way to a honey bee sting, but it must be taken seriously and immediate medical attention must be administered. Those who react in this way can have breathing difficulties as well as other systemic issues. It can be resolved quickly by medical professionals. But timing is critical.
But for the rest of us who are not allergic to a bee sting, when we get stung, it hurts for a few minutes, turns red, swells up and itches for a few days. That's normal. This is why as beekeepers we select gentle bees. That's why I recommend the honey bee known as the Italian bee.
I'm asked that if a certain amount of bees were to sting at the same time, could that large dose of venom cause death. Well, I've heard that drinking too much water at one time can kill you. However, research has shown that an average person weighing 160 pounds could receive 1500 stings at one time and live. The most I have ever been stung at one time is 12, far short of the 2,000 stings that could kill me.
Drones, the male bee, do not sting because they do not have a stinger. You can really impress your friends at your next backyard cookout by catching a drone and pretending that it is a worker bee and put it inside your mouth. Open up and let it fly out. Your friends won't know that it's a stinger-less drone. But before you try that trick...uh...be sure you've got a drone!
People often ask me how many times I get stung. It really isn't all that much. I often work my bees without a shirt and no gloves because summer is hot. The package bees that we sell are very gentle. I know bees and I know how to read them and how to determine the best day to work them. As a result, I am rarely stung given the amount of hours I work bees.
On occasion, a hive can turn mean. An aggressive queen can raise aggressive daughters. Small critters bothering the hive at night can make the bees mean in the day time.
They were up all night trying to chase away a skunk. You'd be mean too after a night like that. And for those of you in the deep south, you want to be sure your bees do not have an Africanized trait.
When a hive becomes too aggressive to enjoy, it's time to requeen with a calm, gentle Italian queen. After 4 weeks, all the bees will be from your new queen's stock and things should be noticeably calmer. Don't put up with a mean hive. Requeen at once so that you can enjoy beekeeping.
So, don't be afraid. Be sure that you do not have a life threatening allergic reaction toward honey bee venom. If you don't, then use the tips above to limit stings and enjoy keeping bees. When you are stung, take it like a trooper and stay calm and get back in there and enjoy beekeeping.
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