Bee stings – how honey bees and bumblebees sting
Technical Stuff – with thanks to Thor Lehnert of Bioenvironmental Bee Laboratory, Beltsville, Md. 20705
All about bee stings!
Bee venom is a water-clear liquid with a sharp, bitter taste and a distinct acid reaction.
The venom is easily soluble in water and acid, but almost insoluble in alcohol. The three toxic effects of bee venom are
- neurotoxic (paralysis of the nervous system),
- hemorrhagic (increase in the permeability of the blood capillaries), and
- hemolytic (destruction of red blood cells).
Recent work reveals that bee venom is a very complicated substance with several active bio chemical components. At least eight active components plus several biological inactive components have been identified. The substances showing activity are histamine, melittin (a protein), a hyaluronidase, and phospholipase A.
The histamine recovered was shown not to be a major pharmacological factor in bee venom. However, histaminealso is released from body cells because of the reaction to the sting in allergic persons. Melittin, a protein having a molecular weight of 33,000 to 35,000, is thought to be responsible for the general local toxicity of the venom. Melittin in high concentrations also has caused hemolysis of red blood cells. Bee venom contains at least two enzymes-a hyaluronidase and phospholipase A. The hyaluronidase is believed to be the “spreading” factor. By breaking down the cell-cementing substance, hyaluronidase allows the toxic principles of bee venom to infiltrate the tissues.Phospholipase A apparently has no general toxicity. However, through indirect action on the unsaturated fatty acids, it causes hemolysis of red blood cells. Phospholipase A also causes inactivation of thrombokinase, inhibits oxidative phosphorylation, and attacks enzymes involved with metabolic dehydrogenation. The pain experienced after being stung may well be the result of these last three actions.
For many years, formic acid erroneously was believed to be the major component of venom produced by the honey bee, and this belief is still held by many. The action of venom is much more complex than the simple concept of direct action on the tissue by formic acid.
Good and Bad News!
The good news is that bees are generally not as aggressive as wasps and hornets, though the spread of the Africanised honey bee in North America has meant that this generally more aggressive version of the “bee” has inflicted more stings than was the case say 30 years ago.
The bad news is that bee stings appears to contain more proteins than wasp venom and therefore there is a great likelihood of being allergic to bees than wasps!
Once certain species of bees have inserted their stinger, the bees are unable to pull it out (using a similar principle to a fish hook which is easy to get into flesh but difficult to pull out).
The bee literally tears itself away leaving the sting still connected to the venom sac which continues to pump venom into the victim for up to a minute from the time of insertion. The need for a bee sting to be removed as soon as possible is therefore evident! The poor old bee meanwhile has left part of its body behind and dies as a result.
The bee is different to the wasp in that the more aggressive bee species will usually die after stinging its victim. These bees would typically be the honey bee and the Africanized bee and it is these species that commonly sting and leave their barbed stinger behind in the victim. It should once again be noted that bees are generally far less aggressive than wasps and will usually only attack if their nests are seen to be under threat or in desparate circumstances – like being stood on! I am sure that if honey came from wasps, “wasp keeping”would not be the popular and valued hobby and industry that bee keeping has become today!
Other bees such as the bumble bee and the carpenter bee are different. These bees’ stingers are actually quite smooth – like wasps – and so the sting usually does not get caught in the vicitm.
Some bees are even less of a threat to man and their stings are unable to even pierce the human skin. The mining bees which you see in lawns are an example of such bees.
The Threat of the “Killer Bees”
More people probably will be stung by bees wherever Africanized honey bees (so-called Killer Bees) become established. Some individuals may get stung hundreds of times in only a few moments. The Africanized bee’s “killer” reputation is greatly exaggerated, but it does have some basis in fact. In isolated instances, people and animals have been stung to death. Most often, the person who died was not able to get away from the bees quickly. Animal losses have occurred for the same reasons. Pets and livestock were tied up or penned when they encountered the bees. However, Africanized bees do not roam in giant swarms looking for victims to attack. Like most animals, these bees react defensively only when they feel threatened.
Beyond public safety, the Africanized honey bee will have the greatest impact on beekeepers. Commercial beekeepers could go out of business if Africanized bees drive out or breed into their domestic colonies. Because honey bees provide 80 percent of the pollination required by agricultural crops, a reduction in the number of beekeepers could lead to reduced yields in melons and other commodities as well as a decline in honey production. Your best protection against the Africanized bee is to understand how it behaves and react accordingly. Bees “swarm” to establish new hives in the spring and fall. Bees are most active then. You may find bees setting up housekeeping where you live literally overnight. Individual bees gathering pollen on flowers or masses of bees clinging together in swarms generally will not bother you. However, bees are more likely to be defensive after they have established a colony and started raising young.
For the non-allergic individual, bee stings are reasonably harmless – it is estimated that if attacted by a swarm of bees an average non-allergic male would need at least 1,500 separate bee stings before the venom becomes life threatening (10 stings per pound of bodyweight).
That being said, it would hurt like crazy!