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“I’m allergic to bees!”

Mention the word “bee,” and some people start to hyperventilate. “Oh, I’m allergic to bees.” is a statement you will hear from half the people discussing the topic. This is not true. Since bees are such a vital part of our food supply, we need to get some perspective on the situation, rather than hitting the panic button, and killing the bees. Especially gardeners should be sensitive to the need for the bees, and the obvious fact that bee numbers are seriously declining, causing pollination problems for lots of gardeners.

A report by the USDA says:  ”Many people believe they are allergic to honey bees when in fact they are experiencing symptoms of a normal reaction. Only a very limited portion of the population (one or two out of 1000) is allergic or hypersensitive to bee or wasp stings.”

Bumble bee on plum blossomBumble bees will ignore you while foraging, and will sting only to defend their nest, or reflexively if stepped on.

 

Swelling and redness around a sting site are perfectly normal reactions. The USDA goes on to say, “The average person can safely tolerate 10 stings per pound of body weight. This means that although 500 stings could kill a child, the average adult could withstand more than 1100 stings. Most deaths caused by multiple stings have occured in elderly individuals who may have had poor cardiopulmonary functioning.”

Honey bee

Honey bees are major pollinators of food crops. If disturbed while foraging on a flower, they will move away. At their colony, they will be defensive if they perceive a threat.

Unfortunately for the bees, all venomous insects are grouped together in the statistics (most emergency room doctors could not tell the difference between a bee and a wasp sting, anyway). So bees may well be blamed for reactions from wasps, hornets or even fire ants.

Yellowjackets are the most frequent venomous insects to sting human, as they will vigorously defend their nests. They also seek out sugar in late summer/fall, and can be a problem at dumpsters, picnics, and especially soda drinks, where they can enter unseen, and sting ones mouth or throat when drinking.

About 50 deaths occur per year from all venomous insects combined. It is likely that the majority of these are from yellow jacket wasps, and bees only account for 5-10 per year.

To put this in perspective, dog bites kill 30 people per year in the US; horse riding accidents kill 20; about 30 people per year are killed by falling TVs and other furniture; lightning strikes kill 55; drowning kills 3,300; auto accidents kill about 30,000; flu kills 36,000 people each year; and, worldwide, mosquito bites kill about 3 million people per year.

Emergency room doctors often have no or little training in allergies, and the statement, “The next sting could kill you.” is likely just covering their own butts for their lack of knowledge.

I would be more concerned if a competent allergist diagnosed an allergy. In the case of a genuine allergy an epi-pen should be carried at all times. Or better yet, get the series of treaments to desensitize oneself.

To live in this world involves engaging risks. You don’t even have to go outside your home to find risks.  I was putting on my shoes one morning, and was stung high on the arch of my foot by a yellow jacket that was inside my shoe. I have no idea how it got there. But it cost me a day’s work, because my foot swelled too much to wear a shoe.

As a farm kid and a career pollination contractor, I’ve been stung by just about everything that stings in North America. Honey bees give me very little reaction; often within 20 minutes, I could not find the spot where I was stung. Yellow jackets and hornets cause a lot more reaction. The most painful sting I ever had was from a “cow killer” (velvet ant), but this only cost me a few minutes lost work time and little swelling. Stings cause more swelling, and are more painful around one’s eyes, ears, nose and mouth.

One of the worst places I’ve ever been stung was on the eyeball, which gave me a throbbing headache; forced me to take a couple Tylenols and lie down for a couple hours before going back to work.

Another bad sting was by a hornet on the temple, when I was on a tractor mowing hay. This one caused me to black out, but I am thanksful I was conscious long enough to knock the gearshift lever into neutral. Whether I was out for a minute or twenty, I do not know, but I awoke slumped over the steering wheel with the tractor racing and the sickle bar mower still running at full speed.

I certainly have a healthy respect for stinging insects, but I will not harm them, if I can help it. Only in rare cases is it necessary to kill a colony of bees, and even yellow jackets have an important role to play in pest control in the garden, so I won’t harm them either, unless they build their nest in high human traffic areas. Paper wasps, mud daubers, and carpenter bees are all quite laid-back insects, all beneficial,  and I will never bother them. either.

As I said, life is full of risks. But when we magnify those risks by our lack of knowledge and perspective, it becomes paranoia.  A healthier response to risk is common sense efforts to mitigate them. I won’t quit driving, but I will wear a seat belt.

Common sense responses to bees is to give them some space, avoid quick motions and vibrations when they are around (especially resist the urge to swat at them – and be perceived a threat), and avoid panic. It’s important to teach children the importance of bees, if we want to eat, and learn not to disturb them on purpose. And not to run barefoot through the clover!

Balancing the risk of being stung against the risk of famine by loss of pollinators gives the pollinators the upper edge in most situations.

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