Getting stung

Information provided by Barry Griffiths, Kinmel Bay, May 2012, member of Conwy BKA.

As a new beekeeper with my first hive I read as much as I can about Bees and try to get experience in other apiaries. With a friend we recently had a “useful” experience in his out apiary with some very naughty bees with my colleague getting many stings in his suit (and one through the suit) as he inspected the most difficult hives, I did not see any stings in my suit, had a couple in the gloves; the bees followed us out for a long time and distance – he is going to re-queen some hives.

After the out apiary visit we gave my nice quiet bees an inspection – all appeared OK, they are a strong colony with two supers getting stores; I plan to split it.

I took my suit off and about 30 minutes later, wearing the same cloths I had been wearing under my bee suit, walking round the garden some distance from the hive I received persistent attention from one or two bees, as a result I tripped and got a black eye! I also found a sting in the back of my sports shirt collar, so this sting had occurred after removing the bee suit; probably during the persistent attention.

I mention these points because I am a beginner, hopefully when I have some years of experience I will gain the skill and sensitivity of more experienced beekeepers but there are a number of new beekeepers; we will all learn by experiences (good and not so good) and maybe these notes are relevant to them.

Good beekeeping appears to be about following defined procedures – drift from the proven path and get stung! So, from the experience above and reading stuff below I offer the following to new beekeepers:

  • A honey bee that is away from the hive foraging for nectar or pollen will rarely sting, except when stepped on or roughly handled.
  • Honey bees will actively seek out and sting when they perceive the hive to be threatened, often being alerted to this by the release of attack pheromones.
  • Bee attack pheromones can, in sufficient quantity, effectively “bathe” a beekeepers suit and to a degree body and clothing under the suit in attack pheromones; and that this signal can last a while, maybe a day or more.
  • Make sure your suit and gloves are clean and free from old stings before you visit a hive i.e. no pheromone trail to excite the sting instinct or attract unwelcome attention.
  • Make sure you and your clothes under the bee suit are not carrying pheromone from a recent inspection particularly when aggressive behavior was encountered, this applies when conducting an inspection and possibly more importantly after the inspection when outdoors and not wearing the bee suit.
  • After visiting a hive, always and particularly when there is some excitement and maybe evidence of stinging; keep the suit on until well clear and you are certain that no bees are following you or getting in your car.

Background

ALARM PHEROMONES are produced by two separate glands. The first originates in the mandibular gland. When guard bees are alarmed by an intruder, they put off this alarm scent that tells the other bees that there might be a problem. This scent is especially prone to be released when the problem is a MOVING intruder. This is why it is important to make slow movements around a beehive so that you don’t alarm the guard bees.

Honeybees generally attack only to defend their colony, but will also attack if they are seriously disturbed outside the nest. Common sources of attack stimulus for honeybees include alarm pheromone, vibrations, carbon dioxide, hair, and dark colors (Crane 1990). This makes sense because mammals, which are common predators of bees, are usually hairy, dark colored, and exhale carbon dioxide. If you think about this you will realize that bees are drawn towards attacking sensitive areas around the head of a common predator.
The second stage of the ALARM pheromone comes from the sting gland. This chemical messenger is released after the stinger has penetrated the skin of the intruder. It is not released until the sting, and is much stronger than the scent given off by the mandibular gland. After the sting takes place, and the stinger (with poison sac and all) is ripped out of the abdomen of the bee, the alarm scent is at its strongest. As a matter of fact, the scent is now all over the surface of the exact spot where the sting took place and functions as a “bulls-eye” for the other guard bees to attack.

Stinging is the ultimate final act of a honeybee because soon after, she will die. First the bee becomes alerted; she takes on a guarding stance and protrudes the sting, which recruits other bees by releasing alarm pheromone. Secondly, the bee will search for the source of stimulus and orient towards it. Finally she will attack; emitting a high pitched buzz and making body thrusts towards the source of disturbance. Once the bee’s sting is inside a victim, it pumps out more venom and emits alarm pheromones. During this time, the stinging bee will spend its dying moments distracting its victim by flying around its head as if it were going to sting again.

References

Honey Bee Pheromones…a unique communication system—Keeping-Honey-Bees.com
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bee sting—Wikipedia
Analysis of Honeybee Aggression—Dylan Voeller and James Nieh
Pheromones—Beesource Beekeeping Forums
Bee stings and how other bees react—Beekeeping Forum

4 Responses to Getting stung

  1. liz hughes says:

    Thankyou for the information about stings ive had a bad week this week having been stung through my glove yesterday, in my head earlier in the week after getting out of my bee suit and on Sunday I took the chance of not wearing my wellingtons for a hive inspection and got stung quite badly on my heal. I do react to stings but the reactions are getting less so hopefully im building up some resistance. Have washed my beesuit and will revise my apparel to lighter shades as under the bee suit I tend to wear dark colours which might irritate any stragglers . Unfortunatley one of my hives does seem to produce follower bees. Requeening does seem to be the sensible solution and entirely possible at the minute with the bees being so active.

    • secretary says:

      Sorry to hear about your stings Liz. Most beekeepers build up an immunity to the after-effects of stings after a year or so with the bees. Stings still hurt as much after years of beekeeping but only for a few minutes. Don’t lose heart.

  2. Ann Burgess says:

    Just thought I’d share a few things my bees taught me in my first year.
    I too had a very lively hive last year, most probably down to my inexperience and lack of technique, and bees that were very determined to swarm.
    I found my leather bee gloves fairly useless as the bees just examined the stitching and found a way through to sting, and made it almost impossible to do anything because they just covered my hands until I backed off.
    I did find a way around this though thanks to the mice who nibbled through my leather gloves!! Needing to cover up the hole the mice had made I put a pair of rubber gloves over my leather ones, and found that not only did it cover the hole but made me less clumsy and it was easier to grip the frames – and of course the bees couldn’t sting through them.
    Another benefit I discovered was that if you can spot that first sting then you can prevent further attacks by masking the pheromones.
    Having had a few stings last year I discovered that lavender oil neutralises the pain almost immediately so now carry a spray with me when carrying out inspections. Yesterday my now fairly placid hive did sting my glove (just one) but as I spotted it straight away used my lavender oil spray to wash my hands and almost immediately the bees that had come to join in the attack, returned to the hive and I had no further problems. Also, of course, I can replace the rubber gloves on a regular basis to have ‘clean’ hands each time I inspect. I’m not brave enough yet just to wear marigolds but the combination certainly works for me.
    I’ve also learned not to be too persistent and to back off a little when the bees get agitated and if I get too many around me I use the smoker to put up a barrier between me and the bees (not too smoke them) but more smoking me – is this where the term smoke screen comes from I wonder!!
    You might be wondering why my bees are more placid this year.
    Well I did requeen – but as soon as my ‘swarmy’ bees knew they had a viable replacement they did finally make it and swarmed in the ‘Indian summer’ around 17th September just before my first official inspection with Jonathan!!

    • secretary says:

      Thanks for these interesting comments Ann. We all have different experiences re stinging bees, and it’s useful to hear about them.

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