Bee stings – acid or alkali?

Does neutralising their pH give sting relief?

the answer!

LemonEvery year I have lots of people ask me this question (especially younger visitors doing certain science courses and exams across the world) and so I have decided to make this a special one-off web page on this subject!

The claims that have become popular on a number of examination courses around the world are that:

1. Wasp sting venom is alkaline and so its effects can be neutralised with vinegar or acid and this neutralisationthen reduces the pain.

2. Bee sting venom is acidic and so its effects can be neutralised with bicarbonate of soda or alkali and this reaction reduces the pain.

Are either of these statements true?

The facts are that:

  • Bee venom contains formic acid (also known as methanoic acid) but this is not the single active ingredient that causes the pain from a bee sting
  • Wasp stings are alkali but once again the venom has so many active ingredients that it is very unlikely that it is the alkali alone that is the single active ingredient that causes the pain

Neutralising a sting with either vinegar or bicarbonate of soda is unlikely to be effective or even practically possible because:

1) The venom from wasps and bees is injected under the skin and after a few minutes spreads deep into the tissues. Sloshing unknown strength vinegar or bicarbonate of soda onto the skin surface is unlikely to even get near the venom so no “neutralisation” is likely to take place anyway.

2) A wasp or bee sting is between 5 and 50 micrograms of fluid – this is a tiny amount of fluid – a little pinhead or the size of this full stop . – and it is hard to believe how pouring comparatively huge volumes of unknown strength vinegar or rubbing lumps of bicarbonate of soda near the venom of unknown pH is going to produce a perfectly neutral pH which neutralises the sting and stops it hurting.

So, I confidently state that vinegar and bicarbonate of soda (or at least their acidity or alkalinity) have no real physical effect on how much a sting hurts or continues hurting.

I would also add that

  • rubbing a wound distracts the mind from the immediate pain and
  • rubbing a wound with anything safe promotes the release of endorphins which may reduce the pain,
  • if you believe something is going to work, then it often will because the mind can play curious tricks!

There are plenty of very subjective but genuine and honest claims for the following treatments:

  • applying meat tenderizer,
  • applying toothpaste,
  • applying tobacco,
  • applying papain (latex from the papaya tree)
  • applying mashed up root of pineapple
  • applying chilli paste
  • applying Mum roll on deoderant,
  • applying mint leaves
  • applying four types of grass
  • applying clay paste, and
  • applying a copper coin
  • squeezing the sting with a clothes peg for 20 minutes
  • applying a paste of green clay
  • applying hot water to coagulate the venom
  • applying lavendar oil
  • applying crushed bracken fern
  • applying Sudocrem to sting site
  • applying a slice of raw onion
  • applying aluminium sulphate
  • using WD40
  • applying ice and cold water
  • apply hot or near boiling water
  • applying plantain leaves mixed with saliva as a poultice
  • applying charcoal and flaxseed jelly

Each of these remedies I am advised have a hugely beneficial effect on insect sting pain.

Without wishing to minimise these claims and the genuinely held beliefs of the kind correspondent, the number and variety of these claims give me grounds for considering that human psychology also comes into the whole concept of pain relief. If you believe it reduces pain then it will! It could also be just the application of anything or pressure on the wound.

If anyone, young or old. has something to add on this subject then let me know as I am willing to be corrected as long as there is some scientific evidence somewhere and we get nearer to the truth.

It is particularly interesting to note that a recent article in Allergy Magazine reviewed home remedies in Turkey and none of these remedies included treating wasp and bee stings with acid or alkali. The myth of neutralisation of sting venom appears to be limited to English speaking and West European countries primarily.(Prevalence and alternative therapy methods for bee and wasp allergy in Turkey :Van K. Onba, L. Eminbeyli, C. Kaynak Allergy 2008 63:2 246)

For the time being, however, I would suggest there is no scientific evidence whatsoever to prove the scientific hypothesis that alkali reduces the pain of bee stings and acid reduces the pain of wasp stings.

So, whilst young people should always listen to their teachers if they are to pass their exams, it is only fair to politely challenge the questions sometimes!

That is how science progresses and it would be great to be part of that progress on this particular topic!

Any correspondence on this subject would be most welcome – particularly from someone who disagrees with me please!

Please contact me via this link!