It pays to expect the unexpected. Even those of us who have never experienced an allergic reaction can suddenly face serious trouble.
Steve Weeks, a ten-year beekeeper in North Vancouver, BC, Canada, sent me the following account of his allergic reaction to a beekeeper-normal number of stings. He was lucky. With help from his wife, emergency services, and competent doctors, Steve is home, healthy, and hoping to share a few words of caution.
The following narrative has been slightly edited for clarity and style. The image above is the swarm Steve was collecting when the incident occurred.
I have been a beekeeper for about 10 years, small-time, only 2-5 hives, but I love every minute of it.… Recently, I had an experience that I thought was worth sharing because it almost killed me. By sharing it publicly, maybe we can help save someone else’s life. Here is my story:
Over the years of beekeeping, we all get stung from time to time. I am no different. Sometimes I go through the whole season without a sting, but usually, I get the odd one or two. The most I can recall getting in a single outing was three, all on my chin through the veil. Like most people, I get a small bump. Sometimes it swells in the local area, but that’s about it until everything changed on June 17, 2022.
Stings from a swarm in a tree
One of my larger hives swarmed and settled in a tree in my own yard. It was a large swarm of about 25,000–35,000 bees. I decided to let them settle out for an hour or so, using the time to get out my ladder, a new hive box, and everything else I would need. I captured about 15 swarms prior to this one, so I was comfortable with what needed to be done. The one tricky part: they were 16 feet up and I was on my own.
I climbed the ladder and positioned my catch basin. As I reached up to grab the branch and give it a good shake, my sleeve got snagged, opening a gap at the wrist. When I shook the branch, several bees ended up in my arm area and I received multiple stings (about eight). Yikes, that was a bit unexpected, but I proceeded to carry out the job I had started, eventually climbing down the ladder with the box of bees. I set the bees down and put a lid on so I could head into the house and scrape off the embedded stingers.
I could not read the instructions
A couple of minutes later, I was back in the yard and working to re-hive the bees. During this process, I started to notice my scalp and feet getting unbearably itchy and was starting to feel a little odd. I worked quickly to close up the new hive before going back into the house. After removing my bee suit, I headed upstairs, wondering if I was having an allergic reaction. As a safety protocol, I keep an EpiPen in the house in case someone who came visiting turned out to be allergic. Thinking I might need it, I retrieved it along with a Benadryl tablet and sat down to read the instructions, which I had not reviewed for some time.
I could not read the instructions; my vision was being affected and even when I could read them, I could not make sense of them. By this time, my left arm where the stings were concentrated was going numb and my hand started to shake uncontrollably. I decided to head into the kitchen where there was a magnifying glass to help me read the instructions. The next thing I remember was waking up on the kitchen floor. I do not know how I got there, but I was drenched in sweat and feeling nauseous. I got myself up and threw up in the sink multiple times. Now I knew I was in trouble.
An expired EpiPen
I took the Benadryl tablet with a glass of water and sat down to call my wife. Fortunately, she answered her phone right away. She could tell immediately from my voice that something was very wrong and asked me what happened. I said I had been stung several times and needed help. She said, “I am on my way,” and hung up the phone. Within a few minutes, I could hear the sirens of fire trucks and ambulances.
The firefighters arrived first and started taking my vitals. They told me they could not administer the EpiPen but could talk me through it. Because my EpiPen had expired, we decide to wait a few more minutes for the paramedics, who were pulling up now with my wife right behind them.
Low BP and 3 hits of epinephrine
The paramedics gave me a shot of 0.3 mg of epinephrine (AKA adrenalin). They asked me a bunch of questions, I do not remember what, and they took my vitals. My blood pressure was extremely low at 80 over 52, so they loaded me into the ambulance and took me to the hospital. On the way, they decided I needed more epinephrine so gave me 0.5 mg more. All told, I had almost the equivalent of three EpiPens.
When we arrived, I was rushed straight into the resuscitation section, where they take the heart attack victims. Three vials of blood were drawn, warm blankets were put on, and I was hooked up to oxygen and blood pressure monitors. A short time later, someone from the cardiology department came in and hooked me up to another machine to monitor my heart as they were concerned about the pains in my chest (for the record, I do not have any heart problems). Satisfied that my heart was okay, he disconnected me from the mobile equipment and left.
Benadryl, an IV, and a lifetime of EpiPens
I was visited by the ER doctor multiple times to check on my progress. On his last visit, he gave me a prescription for two EpiPens which he said I would now need to carry with me everywhere I go, and a referral to an allergist for further testing.
I was kept in the ER for about 4.5 hours. Apparently, there is a strong possibility that a second allergic reaction can occur within 3–4 hours of the original attack. I was given another Benadryl and an IV was set up to deliver some steroids which would provide additional protection for several more hours.
Is beekeeping in my future?
It was a harrowing experience; I could have died. I have never been allergic to anything in my entire life, but apparently, that can change without warning. In the future, it is possible that a single sting could trigger the same reaction in me.
Sadly, my beekeeping days may be over, which for me is an extremely sad prospect as I enjoy it so much. I have been looking forward to expanding the apiary when I eventually retired from working, and helping teach others interested in learning about bees. Hopefully, the allergist can give me some options that will allow me to continue with the hobby that I love so much.
The take-home messages
However, on a more positive note, I am alive and that is good news for me and my family. I share this story in the hope that other beekeepers will at the very least get a couple of EpiPens and read the instructions until they know exactly what to do without thinking, because frankly, you cannot think when you are in this situation. And even if you are convinced you won’t need it, have it there in case someone else does. You never know, it might save your life or that of someone you love.
A word of caution: If you ever need to use an EpiPen, you still need to go to the hospital even if you feel better after taking it. The EpiPen simply buys you time to get to the hospital. There is a strong possibility of a second event, especially in the first 3–4 hours, and that can also kill you.
How and when to use an EpiPen: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lt3KGLyJ4PU