Allergy or just scary looking?
You don’t have to keep bees for long—no more than fifteen minutes or so—before you start hearing the allergy stories. It seems that one out of every two people you meet is either deathly allergic to bee stings or has a (choose all that apply) sibling, spouse, partner, parent, aunt, uncle, cousin, or child who is. Certainly all your neighbors are allergic, as are the neighbor’s kids, guests, gardeners, housekeepers, and family pets.
Oddly, the statistics don’t bear this out. According to Web MD, about 2 million of the 314 million Americans are allergic to some kind of insect sting. The “stinging insect” category is a lot bigger than just honey bees and includes other bees, wasps, hornets, and fire ants. The venom of each is different, so allergy to one doesn’t necessarily mean allergy to another. Two million out of 314 million is about 0.64 percent—way less than 1 in 100.
This seemed low to me, so I examined a number of other references. The very highest estimate I found for severe reaction (Mayo clinic) was 3 percent, a number which also comprised all stinging insects. That larger figure still doesn’t come close to the number of people who claim severe allergy.
I think the discrepancy occurs because of the medical definition of “allergic” compared to the sometimes scary reactions we see on our skin. Various sites list the following symptoms for a bee sting allergy (an anaphylactic reaction):
- Difficulty breathing
- Hives that appear as a red, itchy rash and spread to areas beyond the sting
- Swelling of the throat and tongue
- Wheezing or difficulty swallowing
- Restlessness and anxiety
- Rapid pulse
- Dizziness or a sharp drop in blood pressure
- Nausea, vomiting or diarrhea
- Loss of consciousness
When I get stung on my hands or ankles, the irritation disappears after a few minutes. If I get stung on the face, however, my face swells up, turns bright red, burns, and my eyes swell shut. By the second day I usually have two black eyes that make me look like I lost more than one serious fist fight.
But my type of reaction is considered normal, not allergic. Most people who see me in this state say something like, “I didn’t know you are allergic to bees!” When I protest that I’m not, they give me that sympathetic, “You poor thing” kind of look, like I’ve completely lost my mind. I think these spectacular reactions fuel the belief in widespread allergy. If you look that bad, something must be seriously wrong with you, right?
Even though I think that most people who say they are allergic are not, I would never try to convince anyone of that. After all, there are those who are definitely allergic and I have no way of knowing which ones they are. I wouldn’t want to be wrong.
Still, I hear the stories often enough to be jaded. I usually ignore the latest horror story about “my mother’s cousin Fred” or any other victim of the day. I just remind them that bees are unpredictable and suggest they stay as far from the hives as possible. This is best for everyone . . . then I can go sit on a beehive and write in peace.