Stings of winter bees

Don’t be confused. Today’s post has nothing to do with science or facts; it has only to do with an inkling I get about wintertime honey bees. After years of first-hand observation, it seems to me that the stings of winter bees are worse than the stings of summer bees.

Yesterday provided a perfect example. It was balmy for a December day, no wind, on-again-off-again rain, and 50 F°. I simply intended to add a candy board to a small single-deep hive that contains a swarm I caught in mid-summer. The colony didn’t have a lot of time to put up honey even if summer conditions had been good, which they weren’t, so a supplement seemed necessary.

A moment to add a candy board

I took advantage of the warmish weather to work in the garden, cutting back vines, moving planter boxes, and storing equipment. Right before I went inside, I announced that I was going to take a moment to add the candy board.

My husband decided to walk up the hill with me, and he stood a little distance away while I removed the lid and quilt box and all hell broke loose. Teeming hordes flew out and a brownish clump of writhing bodies landed on the leaf litter behind the hive. I still can’t figure out how the clump got there. I checked under the quilt for anyone hanging on before I moved it. It was clear, but after I got the candy board in place, I noticed the assemblage.

It was too many bees to ignore, so I got a dustpan and bee brush, brushed the bees into the pan, and dumped them on the landing board. This worked well and about 80% walked inside. The other 20% flew back to the ground, so I repeated this over and over, each time getting more and more to walk inside.

The stinging begins

This exercise was getting them riled, however, and I began getting stung. First on the neck (I was wearing a half-suit with veil), then on my ankles (I was wearing knee-high rubber boots), and then on my waist (under the winter coat which was under the bee jacket). Then I got stung on each hip and one thigh right through my jeans.

I felt horrible about dropping bees on the wet ground, though, so I just kept sweeping them up and offering them an opportunity to go back inside. Poor things most likely hadn’t ever been outside, so they didn’t know where home was.

The stings, though, were nasty. My whole self was throbbing by the time I was done. Back at the house, I peeled off the half-suit and trashed it. Considering the hole in the veil and the sagging elastic, I should have done that years ago. Three bees dropped from my left boot and one from the right, but I kept the boots.

Hot welts

Back at the house, I examined my battle scars, big red welts that emitted heat like a furnace. The side of my face from ear to shoulder was pulsating. At dinner my husband said casually, “You’ve got a stinger in your neck.”

So here’s the point. In the summer, stings just go away. I get stung and by the time I’m back at the house, I can’t even tell where they were. Gone. But in the winter, they swell up, turn red, itch, and last for days. Is it me or is it them?

Each winter I wonder about this, yet I’ve never read a word about it. Perhaps I’m more delicate in the winter, but I don’t think so. Could being cooped up for weeks at a time concentrate the bee’s venom? Could their more restricted diet change the venom’s character? Is it because they are mostly young bees with high levels of toxin? Or am I just imagining the whole thing?

In any case, it’s best for me to stay home and out of view for a while because, right now, I’m not a suitable poster child for the joys of beekeeping. Too scary looking by far.

Honey Bee Suite


  • I have in past years noticed that the winter bee is more aggressive than their siblings born in the spring and summer.

    They are quicker to sting and maybe the winter bee although they have more heat generating muscles in the wings, may also have a deeper more potent stinger.

    This may be that the hive is smaller and they need to be extra protective of their home and food stores because it could mean the end of the colony.

    This weekend I was suited up and just poked in lightly.

    • Would agree with the theory of winter venom being more potent. Managed to get a couple of direct hits in the last couple of days when getting them tucked up for winter. Probably one of the most painful stings to date when one managed to crawl in and sting me near my belly button …extreme!!

      During summer months stings would hardly bother me.

  • Once again the lesson is learned: Gravity is NOT your friend.

    Was that the only comment your husband made during the entire operation? Or was that when he was finally able to talk (having heroically stifled laughter the rest of the time)? (Not knowing your husband, but understanding that it can be funny if it’s not happening to you.)

    • Marian,

      My husband is not a beekeeper. Having had anaphylactic reactions to things (not bees), he steers clear. The only other thing he said was while we were still out there, “I gotta leave.” And he did.

  • I don’t know about stings but our little sisters were very aggressive when I fed them fondant yesterday. I received about 50 stings on my veil. The more established hives were really aggressive.

  • I wonder if your own sting tolerance has gone down?

    We have a beekeeper in our association who had been beekeeping for years, then one time developed a sudden anaphylactic reaction and had to be rushed to the ER. Her husband, also a beekeeper, is a medical doctor, looked into it and advised our association that according to his allergist colleagues, the general population can develop a potentially life threatening allergic reaction to bee stings at any time. The treatment once the allergy develops at that high sensitivity is to medicate at first tiny doses, then increasing doses of bee venom. Our brave beekeeper is now up to the point where she takes a shot once per month that’s equivalent to a bee sting.

    Since there are commercial beekeepers who don’t develop this reaction after decades of beekeeping, I might guess that regularly working with bees and getting regular stings keeps up their tolerance, like the de-sensitivity treatment. I wonder if your tolerance to bee stings may have reset back to ‘normal’ a non-superhero-beekeeper status, so the reaction was different.

    • Kelton,

      Could be. But I’ve noticed this yearly cycle every year for about the last 15. If it continues, I will show very little reaction next summer, and I assume that is what will happen.

      • That’s super interesting! I was working with a 4-deep hive on a rooftop this past weekend and got a few stings through my thin gloves. They weren’t anything out of the ordinary. Having said that, our bees are still active here in central California, so maybe they’re behaving differently to your winterized bees too.

  • Hives smell differently when you first crack them open after a prolonged period of non-examination. If bees were goats I’d call it a musty smell. Kind of healthy bee body smell. It goes away in the summer when hives are constantly vented out.

  • That sounds like my reaction to stings no matter what time of year it is. I now wear a full vented suit and rubber dish gloves at all times while working the hives. In the height of summer it’s a furnace and I have to pour out my gloves after but I don’t worry so much of a reaction getting worse and putting me in the hospital anymore.

  • I took advantage of a 45 degree day here in central Ohio yesterday to check on the winter patties I had put on the hives a month ago. Half of my hives had the bees all on top and mad as heck about me taking the top off. I had to go back to the house and put my veil and gloves on. Lesson learned (again) to always wear my gear when messing with the girls.

  • Hi Rusty, Your observational post was so timely for me. Three days while tending to the hive, ago a bee crawled up my pant leg and stung me. I still have a 3 inch red itchy hot area from that encounter. I was thinking too that my body was over reacting, as in August I learned the hard way not to bother the girls after the sun sets, to the tune of several stings head to toe, but the point being, besides lesson learned, the spots never got itchy and certainly did not take days to go away. So I think you might be onto something. Also thanks for the great web site, I learn a lot from you and your followers.

  • Hi Rusty, Your observational post was so timely for me. Three days ago while tending to the hive, a bee crawled up my pant leg and stung me. I still have a 3 inch red itchy hot area from that encounter. I was thinking too that my body was over reacting, as in August I learned the hard way not to bother the girls after the sun sets, to the tune of several stings head to toe, but the point being, besides lesson learned, the spots never got itchy and certainly did not take days to go away. So I think you might be onto something. Also thanks for the great web site, I learn a lot from you and your followers.

  • 12/07/15 Read your comment on ventilation. I had a problem of wet bees freezing because of lack of ventilation. I took that blue insulation that they put under vinyl siding and cut it the size of the inside of the top cover and haven’t had any problems since. I lost all my hives last year because Jan. and Feb. were very cold. The hive that did make it was a hive I left 3 hive boxes on. The lower 2 and a third I left on because I had to add the bees that swarmed in November. This year I am going to do the same and see what happens.

  • Being a first year beekeeper, I’m a little confused as to feed or not to feed over the winter. I am in MD., just outside of D.C. Thank you

    • Carol,

      Whether you feed or not depends on how much honey your bees have for the winter in your area. No one would know that except you. I don’t know Maryland very well, but I suspect if your colony went into winter with about 80 pounds of honey, they would be good for most of it. Although, depending on how it was distributed in the hive, you may have to move honey frames to the best places.

      If they’ve gone through their honey or are close to it, then you should feed. You won’t really know unless you look or unless you weigh the hive. If you are totally unsure, you can feed just in case.

  • I had the same thing happen to me last Thursday. Went to add syrup to 2 hives that I have here at the house to help through the winter. I have added syrup many times and never a problem. I was not suited up because it had always been so easy. I was just dumping syrup into a two tray feeder. No bees were up in the screen on the feeder when I open the top, but were there very quickly. I thought great they are hungry then the first bee from the front hit my finger, then another and before I got the syrup dumped and the top on I was stung at least 15 times all the bees coming out of the front and hitting me directly, no buzzing around or false passes. Lesson learned.

    Thanks for letting me know that I am not the only one with cranky winter bees. Lowell

  • Hmmmm. As a first year beekeeper I did not know what to expect from bee stings. Alas, I get terrible large local reactions to each sting (huge, swollen, red, hot welts that come up 24-48 hours after the sting, itch like crazy and get progressively worse for several days before they get better). My only sting this winter was a bit different. It came up quickly (in less than 8 hours) then turned into more of a bruise than a swollen, painful, itchy welt. It also cleared up more quickly. I just hope I don’t become anaphylactic. I love my bees and don’t want to have to decide between life threatening reactions to a beekeepers stings and giving up my hives. : (.

    Anyone else have a similar reaction to stings?

  • Hi Rusty, I’m a first year beekeeper but had a similar experience. Got stung a few times here and there in the spring and summer and barely flinched. Got stung on the ankle in September and it swelled for days and in general was a much worse reaction. Could have been the location of the sting (felt like it was right on the bone!) but you never know. Thanks for sharing your experience!

  • I haven’t seen much written about winter bees, but it’s obvious that winter bees live much longer, (up to several times the lifespan of summer bees depending on the length of the winter in the given area). They perform different tasks than summer bees, and at different times in their life. They are different bees than summer bees. It stands to reason they would also have stronger venom, since protecting the queen and their honey supply is only function until she starts laying eggs again. Speaking of the queen, I think she was in the clump on the ground, either alive or dead. Thanks for your blog.

    • Jeffrey,

      Regarding the queen, yes. I thought of that too, since they kept going back to the same place. I did look for her repeatedly, but that’s not dispositive.

      Yes also on that fact that winter bees are very different. Excellent points.

  • Interesting reaction–hope you’ll let us know how your “summer” body responds. Though I don’t usually wear anything protective other than a veil, I think I’ll approach my winter hive with a bit more gear on.

  • Now that you mention it, my bees have been pretty nasty in the winter, too! Since my first winter with bees I have worn my “combat suit” when adding supplemental food. I never take the quilt completely off, only lift one end and slide the sugar cake in on a long handle spatula. I had to extend the handle on an extra wide pancake spatula using a ½” flat strip of aluminum to get the distance I wanted. This year I used your latest recipe for no-cook sugar cakes and was able to incorporate lemongrass, spearmint oils, and some vitamins which seemed to attract & calm them as soon as the spatula entered their space. A few bees shot out like bullets but not as many as in previous winters. It was a pleasant surprise! I wonder if putting a sheet over the quilt and sliding the candy board under the quilt would work for you? It may slow them down a little.

  • Ditto…..peeked in on the girls and mass attack at my head and fingers…..and come to think of it, yes, they did itch and well up worse than the summer stings….

    I have found that the apis melliica and ledum palustre homeopathics taken right after the sting and then every 2 to 4 hours after as needed, really cut the pain, itching and swelling time down though.

    On a side note, I have a hive that refuses to take any syrup. Ever. Didn’t this fall and still won’t now. The hive is very light having survived a bear attack this fall and losing most of it’s stores and bees. However the queen and her intrepid band live on in good spirits. I made them some sugar bricks of sugar, and essential oils as a fondant and they seem to be eating that, or at least sitting on it. (Reason I peeked in, to see if they were eating it). Has anyone else ever had a hive that refuses to take any syrup? They wouldn’t take it before the bear attack either. As far as I can tell they are all healthy.


  • Lisa,

    I developed a bee sting sensitivity, and had an anaphylactic episode. I’ve found a great allergist who has treated me and I’m now desensitized. I still keep bees, and other than a shot every six weeks, I’m good to go. I do take an epi-pen with me when I work the bees. I’ve been stung, but have more normal reactions. Interestingly, a co-worker who is also a beekeeper also developed sting sensitivity and went through the same treatment with the same doctor. Articles that I’ve read indicate that beekeepers are about 4 times as likely to develop bee sting sensitivity. So, be alert and keep a communication device nearby to call for help should you need it.

  • Hi Rusty~

    It’s not just you!

    Here in Vermont, the same thing. I shrug off summer stings, but after the first cold spell, there is definitely something different!

    My experiences have been so bad, that I do not take any honey (I leave it all for my hive) and I no longer check inside after I wrap them up in the fall. I used to do candy, and fondant, and act like a worried mother. I still have the quilt on top—but this winter, I am going to “let go and let God” with my hive and see if they are happier in the spring because I left them alone. (The last late fall sting I got was so bad—on my wrist—the pain went to my shoulder).

    LOVE your website! The best!

  • I make a beeswax-based salve for skin irritations. On me, it works really well on stings. I scrape off stinger and rub the salve in. In less than a minute no more pain and no swelling. I keep a small tube in my bee supply shed.

  • I always have a much bigger reaction to the late fall/winter bee stings. I always figured it was because the bees are different. A summer bee has a much shorter life span. Just assumed that the winter bees were more potent.

    • Mimi,

      We know winter bees are physiologically different, so I think you are correct. I sure would like to know more.

  • I was having nasty reactions to bee stings, ie. hot, painful welts.

    I mixed a batch of propolis, pollen, honey, and vodka into a thick salve. I spread this immediately on stings and they are no worse than a mosquito bite. Try it!

  • Love all the info we get as new bee keepers with this group. Don’t know if any of your readers have tried meat tenderizer on stings, but I bet it helps. I’m a master gardener and get lots of mosquito bits. Have used this for years and had great results.

  • Lisa @ 6:15,

    I have that same reaction, summer or winter. Itchy for days! But after many years of beekeeping (and working outside farming and gardening) it has NOT become worse. However, I think I will be quite cautious opening up to feed candy to the bees next week…just in case.

  • I got stung this week and it jolly well hurt! much more pain painful and bigger reaction than summer time stings!

  • Hi,
    I would like to share 2 opinions on this issue!

    The first concerns the bees aggressiveness. I have experienced something similar but not in a seasonal variation but a daily variation. Maybe it is not related, but two times in the past I tried to refill the feeder in the early evening but accidentally slightly displaced it and opened up a way out for the bees and was overwhelmed by the speed that they rushed out and how aggressive they are. And I got stung as they flew straight at me, kamikazing my fortunately effective face cover but finding an alternative root to my skin. So I would venture that maybe it has something to do to how vulnerable they feel? If it is dark or cold they will spend no time and go for broke.

    The other issue concerns your sensitivity response. I believe (although I failed to find appropriate literature on a quick search) that beekeepers tolerance of bee venom has to be maintained by repeated exposure to the venom. When one gets stung in shorter intervals of time over spring and summer tolerance increases and reactions are slighter. As autumn and winter set in, stinging is less and more far between and sensitivity to the venom increases.

    This is, of course, different to sensitization that happens to around 2% of people in which instead of acquiring tolerance a person develops hypersensitivity. This can happen at any time, but normally happens after the first few close in time exposures and is not a cycle, it is a one direction tough ride (that can be controlled by immunotherapy that tries to foster a specific population of lymphocytes (regulator T cells) that keep other components of the immune system from mounting an over the top response to the venom. I imagine it is the population of the specific regulator T cells that varies throughout the year, resulting in fluctuating sensitivity response to the stings.

    My two cents!

  • Lisa,

    I also get horrible reactions that include swelling up to baseball size, red hot itching for many days. I went to allergist for about a year and got my venom shots on schedule, but it really didn’t seem to change my reaction when getting stung by the bees. Since it wasn’t improving, I quit. I believe that the venom shots only help with anaphylactic issues and not local reactions, but I was willing to try since I have honey bees. The only venom I’m allergic to is honey bees, none of the other wasps etc…. go figure. I will add syrup quickly without suiting up, but if I’m in the hive for more than 30 seconds, I suit up fully, adding a painters cover over top. They are one piece, very thin tissue like material that give extra space around my body. I got one at Lowes or Home Depot. I also add wrist covers under my suit, that are just the top of long white socks cut off of the foot part.

  • I have reason to think in the winter the venom in any bee is concentrated. A natural defense to protect the hive or nest till spring. Not as much water will concentrate any body fluid.

  • 2 Stings this weekend putting on a winter top board. One on my scalp, that kept me up all night. I could find no way to comfortably rest my head. I am with you keeping away now for a while. They are not in a cluster. And I didn’t smoke. So I am sure I could have been more smart. But jeez! I am keeping away for a while.

  • Hey Guys, I’m not a beekeeper, but found this site because I got stung this past week (late December) and had severe reactions both times. I get stung easily, but in summer it’s only a pain…this time it was life threatening. And so, I was REALLY wondering, what the heck?? It’s winter, is this really possible?

    It’s not my sensitivity that’s changed because of the seasons…it feels really like a more potent venom, or different kind of venom altogether. These are wild wasps that hibernate in the pear trees and attack from the nests when you walk by. Thank you for this thread! I wondered if it could be possible.

    • Brooke,

      Wasps are not bees and bees are not wasps. This post is about bees and, honestly, I don’t know enough about wasps to say for sure if their venom would change in the cold weather. On the other hand, it wouldn’t surprise me if it did, because bees and wasps are related to each other. Your observation is very interesting and adds weight to our theory that stings are different in winter and summer. Thanks for writing, and look out for those winter wasps.

  • Here in the Midlands of SC we have a summer dearth. My bees get very testy at that time of year. Just this year (my third) I have noticed the winter bees, especially after a hard cold snap are equally angry (I haven’t been in my hives yet this year. They find me if I am just sitting in the yard). However, I have had the opposite experience with the sting severity. Stings from my summer bees are far more severe than stings from my winter bees. I am wondering if venom from older bees is more potent than venom from younger bees or vice versa.

  • 1st year beekeeper here.

    But I started wondering the same thing. I got a nuc of Saskatraz girls. Got stung a few times in June and July wasn’t even sure I got stung.

    Late August and early September rolled around and I no longer question if I got stung. Instant ouch factor and then the swelling and heat begin and it gets worse for several hours before it even stops and thinks about dissipating.

    My bee mentor swears that it’s the same amount of venom as any other time of the year…. But I’m swearing it’s entirely different!

    I got stung around 4 p.m. I definitely felt it. She came right into my arm and stuck her ass end into me. Looked down knocked her off, had my boyfriend smoke me, took my hive tool to knock the stinger out. Just a small dot.

    It’s 11:30 at night the sting site is now hot and there is a dark red circle about 3 inches in diameter.

    I don’t have a honey bee venom allergy, there is something different and far more potent about these stings. However I haven’t found any literature on it.

    If anyone finds some scientific proof of this or academic theories from some journals I’d be interested to read them.

  • Rusty,

    After getting stinged a few times on my butt, I bought a set of coveralls. Best investment I ever made 🙂

    I love reading your posts.

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