Asking to get stung

From Simon's beekeeping blog. Comments are welcome via email.


I was at the apiary today with a couple of hours without anything to do so I sharpened an old pair of shears and tidied up the grass, something we'd both been meaning to do for a little while. I didn't have my bee suit so I just kept back from the bees, and all went well. We'd noticed earlier in the day that the bees were bringing back a lot of either dark grey or bright orange pollen. I thought it would be nice to get a photo, but one of the guard bees had clearly had enough of all this nonsense and gave me a sting on my upper cheek. This is my first sting as a beekeeper and I thoroughly deserved it. And all this after suggesting to Dave not to use a strimmer near the hives in case the vibrations disturb the bees and make them want to attack.

I deserved this partly because I spent longer around them than I needed to, but mostly because I wasn't wearing a veil. If attacked or seriously disturbed, bees will go for sensitive areas around the head of their attackers, guided in part by their exhaled carbon dioxide. When a bee stings anything larger than an insect, her stinger — drones don't have stingers — is drawn into the victim by two barbed slides either side of a stylus. As one barbed slide catches and retracts, the stylus and the other barbed slide is pulled into the wound. This process tears the stinger from the bee's body and kills her. Her last moments are spent flying around the head of the victim, distracting them, as though to sting again. It's pretty convincing.

What remains in the wound is a venom sac on the end of a long stinger. Once these are inside the victim it pumps out more melittin-rich apitoxin as well as releasing alarm pheromones signalling to the other bees to attack. Weirdly, in Africanised honey bees, which are much more defensive than our European bees, chasing people up to 400m and killing horses, these pheromones smell like bananas. The pheromone is hard to get off the attacker, and won't wash off easily.

As for the stinger, it's generally recommended to scrape it out of the wound, with a knife or credit card, for example, or even a fingernail if nothing else is available. However, a study in The Lancet suggested that the amount of venom delivered is the same whether the sting is scraped or pinched if done within two seconds, and the main thing is to just get it out quickly. My dad scraped with surgical precision with a Stanley knife he had to hand and as a result there's barely any reaction now. So, no real pain and no harm done, apart from to the bee, regrettably...

It could have been much worse than one sting to the face, of course, but it's enough for me to learn my lesson to wear at least a veil and not to take our bees' docile nature for granted.