Why Do Bee Stings Itch?

Bees are amazing creatures. Especially when they’re far away from you, doing their own thing. Alas, you’re likely to encounter bees many times and you’ll probably get stung at least once in your life.

And, boy, does it sting! The good news is, bees don’t have any interest in stinging you unless they think you pose a direct threat. It’s best to avoid grabbing, stepping on, or swatting one. If you approach a beehive, the bees will probably find that threatening and sting in order to defend it. Your reaction to a bee sting depends on how your body and immune system react to the venom.

Bees, wasps, and hornets (a type of wasp) have different venom. How your body reacts to each of these may vary significantly. Wasps (including hornets) and bumblebees don’t have barbed stingers. You’ll know you’ve been stung by a honey bee if you notice a small black dot on the place of the sting. That’s the stinger that detached from the bee’s abdomen. In order to minimize the effects of a bee sting, remove the stinger immediately by scraping it away. This will prevent more venom from getting into your body. 

Bee Sting Allergy

Bee stings are a slight nuisance for 95% of people. However, 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 notice 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. immediately.

Even if you’re in the lucky 95%, chances are you’ll still experience mild to moderate discomfort that can last for up to 10 days. Here’s what happens in your body and what to do for a bee sting.

Bee Venom vs. Our Body

The major component of bee venom is a toxin called melittin (which is like a protein). It causes pain, damages tissue, and destroys blood cells, effectively deterring anyone who threatens the beehive.

Once you’ve been stung, melittin is released into the tissue surrounding the sting. It causes 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, sounding the alarm that it’s under attack. It’ll do that by releasing histamines to the affected area.

So, why do bee stings itch? Well, contrary to popular belief, bee venom doesn’t directly cause that terrible itching you experience 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 – which are in charge of fighting infections, viruses, and bacteria – will rush to the rescue and start fighting the venom. 

What Not to Do If About a Bee Sting

The most important thing is to not scratch the irritated area. Not only will that make the irritation worse (resulting in more itching) but it also helps spread the venom.

Many people describe the itching sensation as being ‘below the skin’, and they’re right. The stinger is a few millimeters long, so the venom doesn’t spread on the skin’s surface; 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.

What to Do If About a Bee Sting

Now that you know what you shouldn’t do, it’s time to see what you should 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 or a cold pack to the area to reduce the swelling and numb the pain and itching (this is a temporary solution).
  • Clean the area with soap and water.
  • Apply apple cider vinegar, baking soda, and vinegar/water paste, or lemon 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 (but ice is still better).
  • 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 bee sting relief you can apply over the days following the sting, there are a lot of over-the-counter options that work like a charm!

Since histamines cause the discomfort, the recommended treatment for bee stings is antihistamines. They come in topical creams/lotions or pills, and you can buy them in any pharmacy or even your local supermarket. Look for Benadryl, Zyrtec, Claritin, Alavert, or a generic antihistamine.

Preventing Bee Stings

There are things you can do to prevent bee stings. If you think there’s a hive near your home, stay away from it. If it’s too close to avoid, contact professional services that will get rid of it.

Try wearing less brightly colored clothing, avoid flower prints, don’t drink sugary beverages when outside, and don’t walk barefoot in the grass. 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.

8 Comments

Kayleigh

I get stung at least once a year if not more. And I didn’t even know this. This helps.

    Denise

    Me too!!! Every year every other year. And it’s always out of no where. 🙁 it itches for soooo long. And the swelling stays for days.

Lori

One note: I’ve been told more than once to never pull the stinger out with tweezers, as this can squeeze the remaining venom into your body. You should scratch the stinger out.

Drew

If you’ve been stung I highly recommend looking around your yard for a weed called plantain. Chew the leaves a little to make a poultice and apply. It works wonders and it’s a prolific weed with analgesic properties and draws the venom out. Got stung on my foot and could walk on it right away after using this poultice.

Lisa

Meat tenderizer mixed with water to make a paste works great to make the pain and itch much better. It’s the only reason I buy it and always keep it around.

Robin D

I got stung on my achllies tendon of all places about a week and a half ago. It started itching like crazy last night! Is that normal?

    InsectCop

    We suggest putting on some ointment to ease the itching. Sounds like you might have what’s known as serum sickness. Normally, it should go away on its own. Perhaps go see a doctor if the itching gets too bad to handle, or doesn’t go away.

David

Don’t know if this is true, but I heard that putting tobacco on a sting pulls out the poison, thefore making the pain go away. I’ve never tried this, but does anyone have any information on this?

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