The sting


I’d never been stung by anything until I started beekeeping but like most beginners, I soon became familiar with the sting a worker honey bee can inflict.

The first time I was stung, I was surprised how painful it was but as time goes on, and as I received more stings, the pain seemed to diminish. Perhaps because I know what to expect or maybe my pain threshold has increased but it also depends on where one is stung. On the tips of your fingers is more painful than the back of the hands and if you’re stung on the ankles it can be itchy for days and anywhere on the face can be particularly unpleasant. NHS: first aid for stings.

For most people however, the sting is ultimately harmless. Just because the area around it swells up doesn’t mean you’re allergic, this is the normal reaction to a sting.

A very few people are allergic however and in most cases, they probably already know this but should you ever be with somebody who has an allergic reaction, you should follow the advice here. Anaphylaxis

The first time I was stung, it felt like a red hot wire being stuck into my thumb but a few moments later, the pain was gone and I forgot about it.

Wear your bee suit

Nearly all the stings I’ve received have been because I wasn’t wearing my bee suit. Sometimes, when you’re just popping in to put on some feed or making a change to an entrance block, it doesn’t seem worth the effort of pulling on a bee suit. These are the occasions when I’ve been stung, including one time I was stung on the forehead and had to walk around for the next couple of days looking like a Klingon!

Photo of me shortly after I was stung on the forehead.

These days, I compromise by wearing the veil I was given one Christmas and plan soon to buy a half suit which is also more convenient. If however, you’re new to beekeeping or are conducting a full inspection, it’s probably better to wear full protection; a suit with all the zips properly secured and checked, wellies to protect your ankles and gloves. Bees seem to delight in finding the tiniest chink in your armour so make sure there are no gaps.

Make sure too that your suit is tucked into your wellies and your gloves are pulled over the cuffs of your suit. You can also buy or make cuffs to go over the gloves and suit to give even more protection.

If you are stung, calmly step away from the hive for a moment after covering the open hive if possible. Remove the sting. The worker bee sting has a number of barbs on it which anchor the sting in your skin. Unfortunately for the bee, it also tears the lower portion of the her body away from her and she dies.

The sting continues to pulsate even after the bee falls away pumping more venom into your flesh for up to eight minutes.

Therefore, the longer you leave a sting in the skin, the more poison is injected and the greater the reaction.

Cross-section of a bee sting left in human skin. It’s easy to see how the lower portion of the bee’s body is ripped away as she withdraws.

The other reason for stepping away is the alert pheromone. In forager (older) worker honey bees, Mandibular gland secretions produce an odorous compound, 2-heptanone, which acts to recruit other workers to attack (or as the bees see it, defend) the same target. Beekeepers with a very keen sense of smell report that this pheromone smells like bananas, although I’ve never noticed it. If you are stung, remember smoke disrupts the dispersal of pheromones so puff out some smoke near the area of the sting on your body and re-smoke the hive before continuing.

Protective equipment

Once you’re sure beekeeping is for you, buy the best suit you can afford. More expensive suits are almost made to measure; the manufacturer will ask for your body dimensions including height, shoulder measurements, waist and even back length to ensure the best possible fit. Better suits often come with lengthy guarantees (up to ten years) and wash very well. Cheap bee suits may seem attractive but often only last a season or two. The zips go and it’s often difficult to completely remove stains like propolis.

A pair of stout wellies is also advisable even though they may feel a bit uncomfortable in warmer weather. One year I decided not to bother with wellies and received multiple stings on my ankles; if you drop bees on the grass, their instinct is to climb and once they reach your skin, they sting, resulting in itchy ankles for days. I always wear my wellies now!

When it comes to gloves you have choices. If you buy a beekeeping starter kit, it often comes with a pair of beekeeping gloves. These are usually made from soft leather and are very comfortable but they quickly become covered in propolis and are impossible to clean. The danger here is your gloves may be spreading pathogens between your hives.

You could try latex gloves which are disposable and are therefore very hygienic but they can be difficult to put on and tear easily. Bees can sometimes sting through them too. Then there’s the marigold type of glove. These are thicker and offer full protection and because they are relatively cheap, can be replaced regularly too. Try to find gloves that are long enough in the cuff to pull securely over your bee suit. The only downside I have discovered, is your hands become very hot and cannot breath so you end up with a glove full of sweat!

Some beekeepers wear the leather gloves for comfort with a latex pair on top. This seems like a good idea provided you still have sufficient dexterity. After a while, when working with a colony you know to be gentle, you may decide not to wear gloves at all. It does make handling the frames easier especially if you have a more intricate task to complete. If you do go in, bare-handed, make sure you wash your hands thoroughly between colonies and rinse well to remove soap residues.

Most beekeepers do eventually come to terms with the sting. These days, I sometimes don’t even notice that I’ve been stung until later on, I find the characteristic red area on my arm or leg. It seems the fear of the sting is often worse than the sting itself; a bit like life really!

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