When trying to shoo a bee away from food at a cookout, “Can bees kill you?” is not the first thought that crosses the mind of most people. However, for an individual allergic to bee stings, the answer to this question may be yes. An allergy to bee stings can turn a mildly painful sting into a life-threatening situation. So, can bees kill you?
Can Bees Kill You?
How Do Bee Sting Allergies Work?
When a honeybee stings, the stinger detaches from the bee along with a sac of venom. The venom is then injected into the skin and alerts the immune system causing an allergic reaction. This allergic reaction can be classified as either local or systemic reactions. Someone experiencing a local allergic reaction will have redness and swelling around the site of the sting. While irritating, this reaction alone is not life-threatening. Systemic allergic reactions affect the whole body.
They can range from mild to severe. Mild systemic reactions may result in a full body rash that is not life-threatening. Severe systemic allergic reactions can be life-threatening; including symptoms such as dizziness or trouble breathing. Those who suffer from a severe reaction may have been exposed to enough venom to experience other symptoms.
The venom contains two different substances that are cause for concern: meletin and phospholipase A2. Meletin causes the pain commonly associated with bee stings while phospholipase A2 can damage tissue it touches. This puts anyone who receives a dose of venom, even if they do not experience an allergic reaction, at high risk of kidney failure as the body works to expel the phospholipase A2.
Unlike phospholipase A2 toxicity, Anaphylaxis poses an immediate threat to those undergoing a severe systemic reaction. Anaphylaxis occurs in a small portion of individuals and is the primary way a bee sting can kill you.
What Is An Anaphylactic Reaction?
An anaphylactic reaction occurs when the immune system mistakes an allergen, such as the chemicals in bee venom, for a pathogen. This sends the immune system into overdrive.
One of the body's immediate responses is to signal mast cells, the immune system's first responder, to release chemicals into the body that would help if the body were under attack. Unfortunately, these chemicals are being released unnecessarily and end up causing a variety of symptoms described as an anaphylactic reaction.
These symptoms include rashes, inflammation that closes the airways, an upset stomach, and a drop in blood pressure. The drop in blood pressure and inability to breathe can cause an individual to lose consciousness and potentially die.
How Do You Survive and Anaphylactic Reaction?
Immediate treatment for an anaphylactic reaction is injection with an EpiPen. This pen contains epinephrine, also known as adrenaline, which counteracts the immune system response by opening the airways. Individuals treated with an EpiPen should still seek medical attention.
Individuals who have experienced severe systemic reactions to bee stings may be able to receive long-term treatment to reduce their risk of repeating the experience. This treatment involves exposure to small amounts of bee venom under the supervision of a specially trained physician. The goal is to desensitize the immune system to the bee venom.
What Puts Someone At Risk For An Anaphylactic Reaction?
A major risk factor for experiencing an anaphylactic reaction is having experienced a system reaction caused by a bee sting. According to Dr. Yong of the Royal Surrey County Hospital in Guildford, “Once you've had one generalized reaction there is a 30 to 60 percent chance you will have another, and it could be much worse.”
Additionally, Dr. Shuaib Nasser of Addenbrooke's Hospital in Cambridge says, “Drinking alcohol, exercise, taking anti-inflammatory drugs, or having viral infections, poorly controlled asthma or heart problems can put you at higher risk of having an anaphylactic reaction following a sting.” These factors all increase an individual's risk even if they have been stung before without experiencing a systemic reaction.
Reactions To Bee Stings Are A Growing Concern
Suprisingly enough, the answer to the question “can bees kill you,” is yes. Reactions to bee stings are a growing concern. The number of individuals experiencing severe systemic reactions is on the rise.
Many adults are unaware of the risks that a single bee sting may pose. Individuals being stung for the first time are experiencing more severe reactions. More concerning is that individuals that have been stung in the past are unaware that the severity of each reaction can increase from sting to sting.
Recent United Kingdom National Health Service figures reported that there were 22,377 admissions for allergies in England in 2015, with 12,819 reported as emergencies. The total number of admissions for anaphylaxis was up over 9 percent from 2010-2011, at 4,000 admissions.
Of deaths from anaphylaxis, bee and wasp stings were responsible for 70 percent. There are ten fatal insect stings in the United Kingdom per year. This number is higher in the United States; which reports up to 40 fatal bee attacks alone per year. The difference in number may be due to the expansion of Africanized honey bee territory. While Africanized honey bees are no more toxic, explained Dr. May Berenbaum of the University of Illinois, the stings inflicted in one attack are substantially more numerous.
When asking the question “can bees kill you,” the first thing that often comes to mind is someone with an allergy to bees. But there is such a thing as killer bees.
Africanized honey bees are the result of the cross-breeding between European honey bees with their African counterparts. As this new species of bee was created, some of the bees escaped and entered the wild. Their territory has been expanding into the United States from South America at a rate of about 60 miles per year.
Their current territory includes Texas, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Florida, Southern California, Southern Louisiana, Southwest Arkansas, Southern Georgia and Eastern Tennessee. Any hive in this area, particularly in Texas, should be treated as if they contain Africanized honey bees.
The expansion of this territory may be responsible for the rise in bee attacks in the United States. In a Seeker article, Eric Mussen of UC Davis enumerated that many of the characteristics of this bee species supports this theory.
Africanized honey bees are more defensive and dominant than their European counterparts. When aggravated, a hive of Africanized honey bees can deliver upwards of 2,000 bee stings. This is a major contrast with the usual 12-200 stings someone attacked by a swarm of European honey bees may experience
What Should You Do When Bees Attack?
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure as they say. Always be aware of your surroundings outdoors. Vibrations from a lawnmower, or many feet passing by, are enough to disturb a hive and rouse a colony. If you can avoid rousing a hive of honey bees, you can avoid being swarmed.
Mussen advises those hiking in areas known to have a high bee population carry netting to cover your head in the event of an attack. It may also be wise to carry antihistamines when taking part in outdoor activities. Anyone with a known bee allergy should have an EpiPen on their person.
In The Event You Are Attacked By Bees:
Do not swat the bees.
This will only further irritate them. This may get you or someone nearby you stung. Swatting bees may hurt them, and when hurt, bees emit a scent that signals others to join the attack. Minimizing the signal sent out to the other bees is prudent.
Contrary to popular belief, jumping into a pool is not advised.
Bees may wait above the water to sting you when you come up for air.
Always run away!
Try to run through brush or shrubs if you cannot make it to a shelter immediately. This will minimize the ones that can successfully land on you and brush off those that may have already landed on your clothing. Depending on the species of bee attacking you, you may need to run a long way. Swarms of Africanized honey bees have chased people for over half a mile or more before giving up the pursuit.
If you can, seek shelter in a place you can secure against bees.
Examples would be a car or a house. Make sure to close the door behind you. This seems obvious, but in a panic, stopping to shut the door might not be instinctive.
After you reach safety, carefully look for stingers and venom sacs that the bees may have left behind.
Detach them from the skin by gently scraping them away from the puncture with a fingernail or knife edge. Avoid squishing the venom sac as this can release more venom into the puncture.
Seek medical attention immediately.
Particularly, if you are experiencing systemic symptoms such as a full body rash or trouble breathing. Individuals with a bee allergy may experience such symptoms after only one or two stings.
Adults with no allergy may be able to withstand multiple stings but should still be cautious. No prior history of reactions does not guarantee a lack of future reaction.
Can Bees Kill You – Conclusion
The answer to the question “can bees kill you,” is yes. However, you only need to be concerned if you have an allergy to bee stings, or if you are in an area with a more dangerous species of bees.