The Asian Giant Hornet (Vespa mandarinia), sometimes dubbed the murder hornet, has been getting a lot of media attention lately.1 A much less severe but far more common concern is being stung by a regular bee. Nobody enjoys getting stung by a bee, but it can become a critical issue for some vulnerable people.
The Danger of Bee Stings
It’s the middle of summer, and you’ve probably seen more bees as they become more active. Although most bees are not particularly aggressive, there are so many of them that people will end up crossing paths with them. The fear of the Giant Asian Hornets is, at least currently, overstated. Their total numbers are minuscule, and the chances that you will come across one are close to nil.
Bee stings, on the other hand, are incredibly common. The majority of people will have been stung by a bee at least once. For most people, bee stings are not a big deal (although painful), but a small percentage of the population will have severe reactions to bee venom. Some sources estimate that between 1 and 2 million people in the United States will have severe reactions to bee stings.2 Every year approximately 100 deaths are reported due to bee stings, and possibly more as some may be misattributed to other causes like heart attacks.2 In either case, bee stings are far more of a real threat than murder hornets because they are so much more numerous.
Types of Reactions/Severity of a Sting
Roughly, there are three kinds of reactions to bee stings:
Mild Reaction: Bees are venomous insects. Nearly everyone will have an adverse reaction when stung. Swelling, itching, pain, and redness are typical and may last for hours to days.
Moderate Reaction: The affected area is more extensive. The symptoms are similar to the standard reaction, but will tend to be more severe, last longer, and cover a larger area.
Severe Reaction: Once reactions go beyond the site to systemic effects, you should consider it a medical emergency. Dizziness, nausea, and weakness are all systemic reactions that can occur quickly after a sting and a warning sign that it is a severe reaction. At worst, these can lead to a drop in blood pressure, shock, and breathing difficulties, which can become fatal.
For the vast majority of people, bee stings will not be a medical emergency. Unless swarmed and stung by multiple bees, for people that do not have an allergy to insect venom, bee stings are not fatal or even dangerous. Nonetheless, you should still manage them appropriately to minimize the pain and duration of the symptoms.
- The pain and shock may catch you by surprise, but most bees can only sting once. Calmly remove yourself from the area if you are out in nature. You don’t want to be near a nest or aggravate a group of bees.
- Once you are in a safe location, remove the stinger by scraping over the site with your fingernails. Don’t use a tweezer or similar tools as it’s more likely to squeeze more venom.
- Wash the area with soap and cold water.
- Apply cold water or a cold pack.
- Over-the-counter pain medication can be used, but if the pain is severe enough to warrant taking pain relievers, you should consider visiting a doctor as most bee stings have relatively mild symptoms.
- If the symptoms do not get better within three days, you should visit a doctor.
Some people have severe reactions to bee stings. Highly sensitive people should be aware of the risks and carry an emergency kit that has an EpiPen. EpiPen is injectable epinephrine, which acts quickly and reverses anaphylactic reactions. If you are aware of your hypersensitivity, you should carry an appropriate card that identifies your condition, so that first responders have the necessary information.
Bee stings are challenging to prevent entirely. Aside from beekeepers and other specialized professions, very few people provoke bees or engage in behaviors that might anger them. Unfortunately, because bees are ubiquitous in the spring and summer, they are hard to avoid. Those with severe reactions to bee stings need to be much more careful about being outdoors and have proper medical equipment and identification.