Ouch, A Stinger in My Skin

Beekeeping means getting stung. 

sting

No matter how much you are in tune with your bees, even the most understanding guru will receive a vicious reminder from time to time – the bees letting us know how they feel.

I can’t help but sometimes feeling that I am a troublesome invader to my beehive. I wish I could tell the bees that I mean well, and that everything I do is for their own good. But while I’m thinking this, I can quite clearly visualise what I must look like from a bee-point of view.

A giant white monster with a shaded face. I attack their house with a metal weapon. I tear off their roof, smoke out their house, and one by one I pick up their chambers and give them a good shake – a massive earthquake that causes them to fall down into the abyss. My giant eyeball inspects closely what their babies look like, where their food is stored. Their most precious goods are supposed to be hidden from the daylight, but now they are suddenly painfully exposed to enemies and weather. My giant eyeball doesn’t rest until I have found their leader, the queen, who brings order in the seemingly chaos of the hive. Sometimes I notice that my bees protect their queen by clustering up and around her: she must stay invisible for my crushing powers.

No wonder beekeepers get stung! I would do the same if I was a bee.

Getting stung is not that funny. When I was attacked for the first time – four decent pricks into my ankle, I had a good cry. I actually had to stop doing what I was doing, walk away from the hive, sit down and breathe.  It wasn’t because I was scared, but because it actually REALLY FREAKIN HURTS.

For some reason, when I get stung now it is not that painful anymore. It’s just a bit of an ‘ouchy’ feeling, and I carry on. Unfortunately, I still swell and itch for days afterwards…

When you want to become a beekeeper, you really need to consider bee stings.Bees will only sting you when they feel threatened, so if you see a bee buzzing around the fields, don’t worry too much. If you invade their house though, especially when it’s cold and wet outside, it doesn’t matter how good your protective gear is, the bees will find a way. For most people it’s no big problem, others get Severe Allergic Reactions that may even lead to Death.

So what actually happens when you get stung?

Worker bees have a barbed stinger in their bum. When they sting, the stinger lodges into the victim’s skin. It tears loose from the bee’s abdomen, digestive tract, muscles and nerves. This is what kills the bee – a few minutes later she is death. However, this only happens when bees sting enemies with a thick skin, like mammals. If they sting other insects, they can do so several times without harming themselves.

The sting consists of three parts: a stylus and two barbed slides on either side of the stylus. Instead of pushing the sting in, the sting is drawn by these barbed slides. They move up and down the stylus, gradually sliding the sting into the wound, quickly further and further. This mechanism even continues after the sting is ripped off from the bee’s body.

The sting releases a venom: apitoxin. At the same time it releases pheromones. The other bees can smell that one of their fellows is fatally injured. This will attract them to come to the “place of crime” and help out their buddy by stinging the victim even more. In most cases they will only stop stinging when the threat has gone: the victim has fled or died.

Interesting fact: Male bees can’t sting, and the Queen bee won’t sting – she has a stinger that she could use multiple times, but only in very rare cases she will use it on humans. Humans are generally not worth dying for – she will rather use it to fight another queen!

sting2

The first step you need to undertake when you get stung is to remove the stinger as soon as you can. Even when you only give it a few seconds in your skin, it will continue to release more venom. A few odd traditional “remedies” are  toothpaste, garlic, salt, baking soda or onion on your wound, but these remedies have probably mostly a psychological effect. In rare occasions people can develop hypersensitivity after being stung, which can become worse each time when stung again. They may suffer anaphylactic shock caused by certain proteins in the venom. They need an immediate treatment of adrenaline (epinephrine), otherwise it might be fatal.

Pretty scary.

Yet for most people, getting stung is no reason to not keep bees. And even after getting stung, I still always hope that at the end of the day, after I have fed my bees a big bucket full of sweet syrup, maybe they say to each other that I wasn’t so bad after all…

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Photo’s: Wikimedia Commons

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