Beekeeping with a Honeybee Allergy

Reader Contribution by Jennifer Ford
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A common concern about bees and beekeeping is getting stung and allergic reactions. When I first started beekeeping I had what I considered to be “normal” reactions to bee stings. I have since developed a true honeybee venom allergy, but luckily, have been able to continue my work as a beekeeper.

 Reactions to bee stings can be divided into two categories – immunological response, and allergic response.   An immunological response can range from a normal, non-allergic reaction at the time of being stung, such as pain, burning, redness, itching, swelling, and tenderness at the sting site, to a large local reaction, including extreme swelling around the site, lasting up to a week. (NW Calderone, 98-99). While some of my reactions had been quite large (I was stung on my foot once, and could not wear anything but adjustable sandals for a week), none had spread beyond the area of the sting.

A few years after my husband and I started beekeeping, we were working on removing a colony of honeybees from the wall of an old shed. It was a long, hot process, and by the end, both the humans and the honeybees being moved were feeling pretty grouchy. While we were finishing up, I received three stings in a short period of time. In hindsight, I should have walked away and cleaned out the first sting right away. However, I was focused on getting the job done. I had also never had a problem with honeybee stings before, so I did not think too much of it.

On the way home, I noticed that my lips, tongue, and throat felt slightly swollen, but I was breathing fine. I debated going to the emergency room, but because my breathing was not affected, chose not too. It was pretty scary, but I chalked the reaction up to receiving multiple stings, and decided to just be more careful. A few days later we went back to collect any remaining bees. I was stung one more time, and had the same reaction as when I was stung three times.

I did some reading, and learned about the other type of honeybee venom reaction – allergic response. Allergic responses are characterized by symptoms away from the site of the actual sting. These can range from hives, rash, and swelling away from the site, to minor respiratory symptoms, abdominal cramps, gastro-intestinal upset, and weakness. In severe cases, life-threatening systemic allergic reactions (anaphylaxis) can occur. This includes shock, unconsciousness, respiratory distress, and laryngeal blockage. (NW Calderone, 99-100).

Visiting an Allergist

I was very concerned about these reactions, and decided to visit an allergist. The allergist said she sees many beekeepers about honey bee allergies every year, and scheduled me for allergy tests. The testing took about half a day, and consisted of skin tests of different types of stinging insect venom. Based on the testing, it turned out that I had developed an allergy to honeybee venom. Luckily, I had experienced a less severe reaction.

At this point I was prepared to hear that I would have to give up beekeeping. However, meeting with the allergist alleviated some of this worry. The bad news was that with every subsequent sting, there was a good chance that my reaction would worsen. The good news was that if I didn’t want to give up beekeeping, there were three things I could do to make it safer for me.

One was to use more protective gear to avoid stings. For me this meant using coverall pants as well as a jacket, and using gloves when in the past I had preferred to work with bare hands. I was also told that I should carry an Epi-pen with me in case of a more serious reaction. The third method of dealing with the allergy involved more of a time commitment. I started going to the allergist for venom shots to desensitize me to honeybee venom (known as immunotherapy). I began going in once a week for three shots of a very minute dose of honey bee venom. I was monitored in the office for 30 minutes after each shot for any adverse reaction. While this was a large time commitment, it gradually tapers off. I worked my way down to one shot a week, then every other week, then once every three weeks, and so on.

I eventually worked my way down to one shot every 6 weeks, and the treatment seemed to be working. I was stung a few times after starting the treatments, with no reaction at all. Great news! The treatment is not very painful – no worse than a bee sting! I always felt very safe as I was being monitored, and never had an adverse reaction to the shots. According to the literature I was given, the shots are 97% effective, and most people can discontinue the shots after 3-5 years. After a while, I had worked my way up to one shot every six weeks. I received a sting while moving a nuc from one yard to another, and had another allergic reaction. At that point my allergist dropped me back to one shot every four weeks. It also means that I will probably need to continue these shots as long as I continue to keep bees.

Again, this does involve a time commitment, but it is worth it to me to be able to continue beekeeping. The treatments may not be for everyone, but for me it means I can still keep bees. I also do not feel as anxious while I am in the bee yard, so it was well worth it! If you have had a bad experience with bee stings, I highly recommend seeing a doctor to find out what might work for you.

Calderone, NW. So, You want to be a Beekeeper. Ithaca: Cornell University. 2009

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