Buzz off: What to do if you get stung by a bee

Bee stings can be more dangerous than you might think, landing hundreds of people in hospital each year.

Forget Australia’s most venomous spiders, snakes and jellyfish – the humble bee sends more of us to hospital each year, new research reveals.

More than 3500 Australians wound up in hospital after contact with a venomous animal or plant in the year to June 30, 2018, according to an Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report.

A quarter of those hospitalisations were caused by bee and wasp stings. Some 19 people died of venomous bites and stings, with 12 of those involving bees and wasps, the report shows.

Dangerous creepy crawlies

Spider bites accounted for a fifth of all hospitalisations, followed by venomous snakes at 17 per cent.

“In terms of the hospitalisation data, it wasn’t anything particularly surprising,” says AIHW spokesman Professor James Harrison.

“However the one thing that was distinctive about this year was the deaths – that was unusually many.”

In an average year, total deaths from venomous animals and insects would be less than 10, with a handful of those caused by bee and wasp stings, he says.

What happens when a bee stings?

In most cases bees aren’t looking to sting humans. If they do, it’s usually because they feel threatened – perhaps because you’ve interfered with their hive or accidentally stepped on a bee, says Associate Professor Bill Nimorakiotakis, deputy director at Epworth Richmond’s emergency department.

A bee’s sting injects venom under your skin, which your body reacts to, says the toxinology expert, who provided the medical content for free app Australian Bites and Stings.

“It’s got a little barb that actually goes in, and there’s a little venom sac attached to it. Venom will be pumped just under the skin for several minutes once the stinger is left behind,” he says.

A honeybee stings once and then dies, while a wasp can sting multiple times.

How to treat a bee sting

The best way to deal with a sting is to flick the barb, rather than squeeze the venom sac to remove it, says Assoc Prof Nimorakiotakis.

In most situations – unless there’s a bad allergic reaction – victims will mainly have localised swelling that subsides within 24 to 48 hours.

For local swelling, he says ice and paracetamol should help (but don’t apply ice directly to your skin).

Why some people are at more risk from bee stings

People who are atopic – or have a tendency to develop allergies generally – need to be on their guard when it comes to bee stings.

Assoc Prof Nimorakiotakis says in some cases, a bee sting can lead to an anaphylactic reaction, not unlike the way people can develop a nut allergy.

He says anyone who is regularly around bees, or has been stung before, should be extremely wary, especially if they’ve had more than just a local reaction.

Reactions to watch out for after a bee sting

If the person who has been stung is experiencing nausea, vomiting, a tickle in the back of the throat or swelling all over the body, it’s a life threatening situation, so call triple zero immediately, says Assoc Prof Nimorakiotakis.

He says anyone who’s experienced even a very mild reaction to a sting in the past should see their doctor or allergist.

“It’s not the first one that usually kills them, it’s the second one,” he says.

In this case, a doctor might suggest keeping an EpiPen nearby, which provides a shot of adrenaline to combat the sting.

Why not to hate bees

While we might wish they could buzz off, bees are an integral part of nature, says Prof Harrison.

“They’re good things to have around. We rely on them enormously for fertilising plants and things, so they’re creatures to be encouraged,” he says.

“You clearly don’t want to get stung by them, but we would be in a worse position without any bees.”

Written by Larissa Ham.