As a beekeeper you work closely with bees, so you’re more likely to be stung. But do you gain immunity over time, meaning that you can resist the effects of the bee toxin? In some people the effects of bee venom lessen the more stings they receive, but it’s unlikely total immunity is ever achieved.
Do beekeepers build up a tolerance to stings?
Some beekeepers will build up a tolerance to stings over time, meaning the effects, such as swelling, redness and pain lessen the more stings they get.
But some others, over time, can become more allergic and experience stronger allergic reactions.
Let’s find out why this might be the case.
An experienced beekeeper could build up a tolerance to stings because he or she has had so many of them over the years that on certain areas of the body they’re not really felt any more, but on other areas of the body they are. Perhaps this is because over time certain areas have become nerve damaged because of all the stings. Maybe the part still swells up a bit but the initial pain of the sting isn’t as bad.
In my experience, I am usually stung on the hand, particularly the fingers and I’d think for most beekeepers that would be the same. Even though I wear gloves with gauntlets, the leather wears thin with use and if I get stung, for me the pain is still bad. Even though I have been beekeeping for around six years now and have had plenty of stings, I’ve still got a bit of a lingering fear of being stung. Maybe it’s psychological, that fear is why I still feel stings strongly, or why I might get stung more often.
Some experienced beekeepers don’t build up a tolerance to bee stings, they experience stronger allergic reactions the more stings they get and medical intervention is necessary. At this time the beekeeper might consider giving beekeeping away altogether for the sake of their health.
Do bee stings get worse each time?
In some people, bee stings can get worse each time they get stung. So, before starting out on your beekeeping journey, you should become informed as to the possible symptoms you may experience when you’re stung by a bee for the first time, and whether your symptoms are going to worsen the more stings you get. This is especially important because if you have a history of strong allergic reactions you are more likely to experience them in the future.
Most importantly, if you have questions you should first visit your doctor to discuss your concerns. Your doctor knows your medical history and can best advise you on any precautionary action you need to take.
Mild symptoms include redness and pain at the site and localised swelling. Simple first aid techniques such as removing the sting and applying a cold pack can alleviate the symptoms which often disappear after a few hours.
More severe symptoms include swelling in areas of the body other than the sting site. Breathing difficulties may be experienced in some and medical attention should be quickly sought.
My experience with injections/treatment
I have been stung by bees many times and all of those stings were on my hands or fingers. All of the symptoms I experienced were mild; pain, local swelling and redness. I would remove the sting at the time and if I was in the middle of an inspection I would finish that before seeking further treatment. Further treatment meant using an ice pack to reduce swelling and taking an antihistamine.
The one time I was stung on the face occurred not during a hive inspection, but when I walked right by the hive, through the flight path, not wearing a veiled hat. Silly mistake.
I was stung on the eyelid and my whole face swelled up so much I couldn’t see. Perhaps the skin is more sensitive on the face, hence the strong reaction. The redness traveled along my arms and onto my stomach, so I went straight to the doctor who prescribed an antihistamine and cortisone tablets which I took immediately. The redness and swelling to a few days to subside.
He also prescribed venom immunotherapy, a course of injections of small doses of bee venom given over time to diminish sensitivity to bee stings. Ultimately, it prevents severe allergic reactions. Given I’d had such a severe reaction, the doctor couldn’t rule out the possibility of my allergic reaction being stronger next time, so decided this was the best course of action to take.
Beekeepers are unlikely to become completely immune to bee stings, but their reaction to the effects of the venom may lessen over time. This could be because their skin has become less sensitive to the many stings it has received. As beekeepers get more experience their attitude to getting stung may change too and the stings may not be noticed as much.
But the opposite can happen, where beekeepers allergic reactions are stronger the more stings they get.
Your first action if you’re thinking of becoming a beekeeper is to see your own doctor to discuss any concerns you may have about being stung.