Bees are amazing creatures. Especially when they’re far, far away from you, doing their own thing. Alas, every once in a while (an average adult is stung by a bee every 10-12 years to be exact), you’ll probably do something mildly reckless and get stung.

And, boy, does it sting! The good news is, bees don’t have any interest to sting you when they’re away from their hive. If that does happen, it’s almost certainly an unfortunate accident. However, if you approach a beehive, the bees will probably sting in order to defend it. Your reaction to a bee sting depends on what type of bee has stung you as well as how your body and immune system react to the venom.

Bees, wasps, and Hornets all have different venoms, so keep in mind that how your body reacts to each of these may vary significantly, even though it might seem irrelevant if you were stung by a bee or a wasp. Wasps and hornets don’t have barbed stingers; you’ll know you’ve been stung by a bee if you notice a small black dot on the place of the sting – that’s the stinger that was detached from the bee’s abdomen. In order to minimize the effects of a bee sting, it’s important to remove the stinger immediately, either with tweezers or by brushing it away. This way you’ll prevent more venom from spreading through your body.

Although 95% of people will see the bee sting as a slight nuisance and won’t experience any serious reactions to bee venom, around 5% of people will need immediate medical attention. If you’ve been stung and you’re experiencing abdominal pain, nausea, dizziness, difficulty breathing, hives, or you’re noticing swelling somewhere other than where the sting is (the most common sign of an allergic reaction is swelling of the face and tongue), you need to go to the nearest E.R. now.

Even if you’re in the lucky 95%, chances are you’ll still experience mild to moderate discomfort that can last for up to 7 days. Here’s what happens in your body and what to do for a bee sting.

Bee Venom vs. Our Body

The basic component of bee venom is a toxin named melittin (which is essentially a type of protein). Its primary purpose is to cause pain and destroy the tissue surrounding the sting, effectively deterring anyone who threatens the beehive.

Once you’ve been stung, melittin will be released into the tissue surrounding the sting, causing redness, short-term pain, light swelling and possibly a feeling of heat. Naturally, your body will immediately recognize the bee venom as something that shouldn’t be there in the first place, sounding the alarm that it’s under attack. It’ll do that by releasing histamines (proteins as well) to the affected area.

Alright, alright, that’s all fine, but you want to know why do bee stings itch, right? Well, contrary to popular belief, bee venom doesn’t directly cause that terrible itching you’re experiencing for days after the incident. What causes the itch is actually histamines, in order to grab your attention and alert you that something is not right!

After that warning, your white blood cells, that are in charge of fighting infections, viruses, of stopping the bleeding and keeping you alive in general, will rush to the rescue and start fighting the venom. In order to fight the venom and prevent it from spreading further, the white cells will need to multiply, causing irritations to the surrounding nerves. That, too, will prolong the itching sensation.

Course of Action

The most important thing is to not scratch the irritated area. It simply won’t do any good. You’ll not only irritate the area further (resulting in more itching) but also help spread the venom that’s been contained. A lot of people often describe the itching sensation as being ‘below the skin’, and they’re right! The stinger is a few millimeters long, so the venom isn’t spread on the skin’s surface, but rather it’s injected into your tissue. While the itch can be infuriating, it’s also a signal that your body is fighting the ‘enemy’, if that makes it any easier for you.

Now that you know what you shouldn’t do, it’s time to see what do you do for a bee sting. Here is a short action plan that will help you immediately after the sting:

  • Get the stinger out at once – this will prevent the venom from spreading
  • Apply ice to the area to reduce the swelling a bit and numb the pain and itching (this is a temporary solution)
  • Clean the area with rubbing alcohol – this might also help with numbing the pain a bit
  • Apply apple cider vinegar and/or citrus fruits juice to neutralize the venom
  • If you’re out camping or hiking and you don’t have access to any of the above-mentioned solutions, feel free to put a thin layer of mud on the spot – nature lovers swear by this trick
  • Experienced beekeepers will all tell you the same thing: don’t panic and don’t think about the pain. The less you think about it, the less you’ll feel it

If you’re looking for a bee sting relief you can apply the next few days, there are a lot of over-the-counter options that work like a charm!

As we now know, histamines are what causes the discomfort, so it’s perfectly clear why the recommended treatment is antihistamines, which come in form of a topical cream or lotion, and you can buy them in any pharmacy, or even your local supermarket! Search for Benadryl, Zyrtec, Claritin or Alavert. You can also make a paste out of baking soda and water and apply to the area overnight. This will help the skin healing process.

There are certain things you can do to prevent an occasional bee sting. If you think there’s a hive near your home, be sure to contact professional services that will locate it and get rid of it. You can also wear less yellow, avoid flower prints, don’t drink sugary beverages when outside and always wear sneakers or flip-flops when walking on grass. But in the end, bees are a necessary part of nature, and you’re bound to cross paths from time to time. The important thing is, you now know what to do when that happens.