Worried about bees

Originally Published: March 23, 2012
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Dear Alice,

I’ve heard that there is a species of highly aggressive bees more prone to attack than the typical bee. Are there any precautions I can take to protect myself? I am highly allergic to bee stings. I carry an EpiPen but I am worried it won't be enough, especially if I am attacked by multiple bees at once.

Thank you,

Bee Afraid!

Dear Bee Afraid!,

Bees are some of the most complex and fascinating insects around. Bees have complex social structures. They communicate highly efficiently through pheromones, have ultraviolet vision, and are responsible for a large amount of food production. Over half of all our fruits and vegetables are pollinated by bees. But, alas, stinging insects can be dangerous, especially to people who are highly allergic to the sting. Bees are responsible for about 100 deaths per year due to allergic reactions. It’s great that you carry an Epinephrine auto-injector. In terms of your question about multiple stings, it depends on the type of auto-injector you have (single dose, multiple dose) and the number of stings you get. In any case, the injection will certainly help, but it may not provide enough medicine, so you should head to an emergency room if you are stung by several bees at once. Incidentally, there are allergy treatments designed to reduce one’s sensitivity to bee sting allergies. You may want to consider asking your health care provider about these options. But it is possible to reduce your risk of receiving multiple bee stings, so let’s start there (more on these highly aggressive bees you speak of later).

Here are some tips to reduce your likelihood of being stung:

  • While wasps and hornets sting for defense and predation, bees sting only for defense. So avoid swatting at or trying to kill a bee buzzing near you. Letting it “bee” is your best defense.
  • If there is a beehive somewhere close to you, call your local bee keeper! They are experts at moving hives and will likely be excited to take it off your hands. Check online for your local beekeeper, apiary, or honey farm.
  • If you see a swarm, don’t panic. A swarm is simply a colony of bees that are searching for a new home. The majority of them will hang out somewhere while a few others are out scouting. Bees in a swarm tend to be less aggressive than when flying solo. Again, call a beekeeper.
  • Avoid wearing fruit and flower-scented perfumes and lotions when you know you might be around bees. They’ll be drawn to the smell.
  • If you are chased by bees, run. They are slower fliers. Try to get indoors where you can shut them out. Avoid running toward people and avoid looking for a body of water – they will still be there when you come up for air. Run in a straight line, don’t zig zag. Try to cover your face with a shirt or coat as you run, as this is one of the most uncomfortable areas to be stung.

There has been quite a bit of media “buzz” about the Africanized honey bee, oft-referred to as the “killer” bee and probably what you are referring to when you speak of a more "aggressive" bee. While these bees are more aggressive than the European honey bee, they are no more aggressive than wasps and yellow jackets. Their venom is no more dangerous and, like the European honey bee, they can only sting once, as their stinger is barbed and comes off with the venom sack when they sting. These bees are, however, better able to survive in unpredictable environments: they conserve more food, chase predators for longer distances, pollinate more efficiently, and respond to signs of danger in their environment more readily than the common European honey bee found in most of the United States. In appearance, however European and Africanized honey bees are not distinguishable without the aid of a microscope.

While it is wise to “bee” careful around bees, especially if you are allergic, severe or deadly attacks are not common. Have your injector nearby at all times, but don’t stop enjoying the outdoors! For more information about bees, the good and the bad, check out the website buzzaboutbees.

Bzzzzz,

Alice