There is a distinction between an allergic reaction to a bee sting and being allergic to bee venom. It sounds like a minor semantic difference.
It is not.
Back when honeybees were an integral part of our farm, many people would respond, “I’m allergic to bees.” What they meant was, that when stung, the area around the sting would swell, itch, and probably hurt. Depending on the location of the sting and how much swelling would result, they may have required medical treatment, for example, if an eye swelled shut.
Most people can treat a honeybee sting at home with ice and a topical anti-itch cream.
I found out the hard way what 3% of adults mean when they say they are allergic to bees.
First, let me say that over my lifetime, I’ve been stung many times by many insects. Wasps, yellow jackets, hornets, and honeybees. While working in honeybee hives, I would get stung once or twice a year.
Always with the same reaction—an apology to the honeybee who just lost her life trying to protect her colony, remove the stinger, ice the area, and take an anti-histamine for itching if necessary. Most of the time, I didn’t even need the ice or drugs.
Everything changed on July 21, 2023.
We needed a new queen for one of our colonies and found one immediately available three hours away. One benefit of retired life is the flexibility to take off on a moment’s notice to run such an errand. Along the way, we stopped for a nice big breakfast, then headed on to the bee farm.
Arriving at the farm, we had to walk past a couple of beehives to access the store. I wasn’t afraid. I just didn’t linger in the bee flight path.
What I didn’t know was one critical piece of information.
The owners had just completed a full inspection of these hives, which agitated the bees. Guard bees were on high alert for further intruders.
They interpreted our stroll past their door as an unacceptable act of aggression. Bees came after both of us and we walked in separate directions away from the hive trying to put enough distance between us and them, to diminish their perception of the threat.
The bee following me was relentless.
She kept buzzing my head and landing on my hair. My mistake was what I intended to be a gentle brushing of the bee away from my hair, Miss Honeybee thought was swatting at her. She dug in, rear-end first, and let go with a full dose of venom into my scalp. I saw her tumble to the ground.
Donna removed the stinger from my head and I went back to the shop to pay for the queen. That was the entire purpose of the trip, after all.
While waiting for the owner to swipe my credit card, I noticed my palms and the tops of my feet were itching. Odd, I remember thinking.
Within ten minutes, we were back on the road, heading for the interstate and the 3-hour drive home. I recall saying I didn’t feel very good. My stomach was upset, and I was beginning to sweat. Donna handed me a dissolving allergy tablet.
Looking back, there are so many things I wish I would have done differently.
I wish I would not have swatted the bee.
I wish I would have stopped before getting on the interstate.
I wish I would not have been three hours from home.
I wish I would have pushed the little red SOS button in the new vehicle.
Within a mile of entering the freeway, I had to pull over. We were on a slight curve about to enter a construction zone and the shoulder was littered with debris. Semi-trucks whipped by and I could not get out of the car.
None of that mattered.
Donna tried to find whatever she could to contain the onslaught. Violent vomiting threw breakfast all over me and the new car. A couple of our new, tidy, pretty-patterned, reusable, and packable grocery bags were sacrificed. I pity the person who picked up litter on that stretch of highway.
Feeling somewhat better, although now sporting red hives from head to toe, along with the remains of breakfast, we headed home.
Donna tried to find a change of shirt for me at a couple of gas stations (the first stop had an apparent drug deal happening behind us, so we hurried on to another station). All she could find was wet wipes and water. There were no clean shirts to be had at the gas stations. Her conclusion: “That’s the last time I shop for clothes at BP.”
We discussed finding a hospital and a truck stop where I could shower. Hospitals were an option on our route, but not the shower. I just wanted to be home.
Somewhere in the recesses of my mind, I knew I needed medical attention, but I wanted a shower more than anything, and it felt like the crisis had passed. I was filthy; the car was filthy, and the queen needed to get into her hive.
After three long hours, we arrived home and did all the things—shower, clean the car, and install the bee.
When I finally went to the walk-in clinic, I learned that any future stings would likely cause an even worse reaction. Donna had Googled anaphylaxis on the drive home—my symptoms already reached “severe” status. Worse than that was horrifying to contemplate.
I credit the bit of antihistamine from the dissolving allergy tablet for reaching my system enough to keep my airway open. Sitting in the clinic was when I truly appreciated the seriousness of what had happened.
Life changed for us that day.
We are out of the beekeeping business. We both have a keen awareness of the ability to summon anytime and anywhere through On Star if we only push that little red SOS button. The car is now loaded with wet wipes and an emesis bag for emergencies.
And I carry an EpiPen.