Bees sting to protect themselves or their hive. Any interference with a hive or swarm of bees will cause the guard bees to attack unless they are quietened with smoke. Petroleum products such as kerosene or petrol and garden sprays, paint thinners and hair lacquer irritate bees and may excite them to sting.
Bees will sting to protect themselves if trodden on or trapped in a person’s hair. Bees, like dogs and horses, can sense fear, so if you are afraid of bees, the chances of being stung are greater.
If you are bothered by bees, avoid swatting them. Walk quietly away into the wind with your head bowed and your face covered with your hands.
The bee’s sting consists of two barbed, harpoon-like shafts attached to a poison sac. When the bee stings, small muscles work the barbs inwards alternately with one barb holding as the other penetrates more deeply. Poison from the sac is pumped down the centre of the sting, causing pain.
To prevent the poison entering your skin, remove the sting as soon as possible. The best way is to press down hard with a fingernail on the skin, and scrape the sting out. If the fingernail is not pressed hard enough the sting will not be removed in one action.
Do not grasp the sting to pull it out as this squeezes poison out of the sac as it is pulled. Some of the barbed sting may remain in the skin but this will not cause irritation or pain.
Wash the affected area with cool water to soothe the pain and remove poison adhering to the skin so other bees are not excited by the scent.
Reactions to bee stings
Bee stings are very painful and are often followed by local swelling and then itching as the swelling subsides. The swelling varies from a small reaction similar to an ant or mosquito bite to a swollen area which turns red and itches for three or four days. With a normal reaction, the whole leg or arm may swell.
Repeated stinging will create immunity, with each sting causing less swelling.
Beekeepers, who can be stung more than 100 times each day, usually react until they become immune, which may take from 3 to 12 months, depending on the number of stings.
A true allergic reaction develops within minutes after a sting, with blotches appearing all over the body. The eyes and nose may water and the scalp, palms of the hands, soles of the feet and crotch may itch. The lips and the tissue surrounding the eyes may swell and, as the blotches become more apparent, large areas of the body may become red and raised.
Recovery takes several hours but if breathing is affected seek medical help. A person with an allergic reaction who is stung again may develop a more serious reaction. Their blood pressure may drop drastically, causing unconsciousness, and the throat passages may swell, making breathing difficult. Seek immediate medical attention.
People with bee sting allergies should travel with a medical kit recommended by a doctor. The kit may contain anti-histamine tablets, adrenalin, a syringe and an isopreneline spray inhaler.
Fortunately, allergic reactions to bee stings are rare, with only about one person in 10,000 affected.
Bees are attracted by moisture, particularly in hot weather, as they need water to cool the hive and maintain humidity. This increases the chance of being stung near leaking taps, swimming pools, or after a lawn has been watered.
Many people are stung on bare feet while moving lawn sprinklers, so wear suitable footwear.
Repair leaking taps and position bird baths away from pathways and play and work areas. Cover swimming pools and remove bees floating in the water before swimming. A saline chlorinator creates salty water that is less attractive to bees.
When flowers are scarce bees are attracted to traces of soft drink in bottles and the juice in damaged fruit on trees.
Plants with a strong scent, and those that produce large quantities of nectar, attract bees and should not be planted near walkways and play areas. A nursery can recommend alternatives.
When plants like the umbrella tree (Schefflera actinophylla) are in flower it causes bees to fall to the ground dazed, where they can sting people walking barefoot in the area.
One or two hives are considered a reasonable number to keep in a suburban backyard in the metropolitan area. Provide a water supply and position hives so the bees will fly high.
If a neighbour’s bees cause concern discuss problems with the beekeeper and refer queries to your local council. Alternately, the Western Australian Apiarist Society has information about bees and beekeeping and a list of swarm collectors on its website www.waas.org.au.
The Department of Agriculture and Food Western Australia (DAFWA) does not control where bees may be kept.