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What is a Bee Sting?

Mary McMahon
Updated: May 17, 2024

A bee sting is a sting from a venomous insect. Properly, the term “bee sting” should only be used to refer to stings from bees, but many people use the term to refer to stings from wasps, hornets, and other stinging insects. Bee stings are very common injuries all over the world, and in many cases, they are harmless, though irritating. However, a bee sting can have serious consequences for someone with an allergy to bee venom.

The mechanical process of a bee sting varies, depending on the insect inflicting the injury. Some stinging insects have barbed stingers which will become embedded in the flesh of their victims, injecting venom until they are removed. Others are capable of removing their stingers to sting again another day, and some will sting their victims multiple times.

Many creatures react to bee stings because bees produce venom which is injected under the skin during the stinging process. A number of ingredients are present in bee venom, including melittin, which causes the body to overload on histamine production. The site of the sting quickly becomes swollen, red, hot, and tender. After the stinger is removed, the area may continue to be swollen and painful for several days, before becoming itchy as the body slowly heals.

When stinging insects deliver a load of venom, they also produce pheromones, to alert the rest of the hive to a problem. As a result, insects will usually flock to the area after someone is stung, which is why it is important to move after being stung by a bee, so that you are not stung by other members of the hive. After you have moved from the site of the original stinging, you should remove the stinger to reduce the amount of venom which is released, and apply a cold compress to the site to reduce swelling. Topical applications, while popular, are largely useless, because the venom penetrates deep into the layers of the skin.

In some individuals, bee stings cause anaphylaxis, a life-threatening condition. Many people who know that they are allergic to bee venom will carry emergency syringes of epinephrine. They should also be brought to a hospital for medical treatment after a bee sting, as the syringe is usually not sufficient to prevent medical problems. In people who are not aware that they are allergic, signs of anaphylaxis including difficulty breathing, hives, and disorientation can appear within five minutes to five hours. If signs of anaphylaxis do emerge after a bee sting, the patient needs emergency medical care.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By Wisedly33 — On Jul 08, 2014

The last time I was stung by a honeybee, it was because I stepped on it in the yard. It really hurt, but I'm not allergic, thank goodness!

I was actually stung on the finger by a yellowjacket in the grocery store several years ago. As I said, I'm not allergic, but I guess it was because of where it got me. I was feeling really lightheaded by the time I got home. I didn't know if I would be able to drive!

I took some antihistamines and that helped, but yellowjackets are nothing to fool around with. They can sting more than once, too.

By Scrbblchick — On Jul 07, 2014

Unless someone is allergic, a honeybee sting usually isn't that bad. It will burn for a while, but usually stops fairly soon. My mom always advocated for a paste of baking soda and meat tenderizer to stop the stinging.

A hornet sting is something else altogether, although a hornet isn't a bee -- it's a type of wasp. And wasps don't die after they sting. They can -- and do -- sting repeatedly. A red wasp got me in church once, on the foot. I had no idea it was in the building and I had sandals on. Fortunately, it was before church so I didn't interrupt the service with a scream of pain.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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