By Jennifer Ford
When I first started beekeeping, I experienced normal reactions to bee stings – a burning sensation, redness, itching and swelling at the site of the sting. Since then, I’ve developed a honeybee venom allergy. Fortunately, I’m able to continue my work as a beekeeper.
I first experienced honeybee allergy symptoms a few years after my husband Keith and I opened our beekeeping business. We were removing a colony of honeybees from the wall of an old shed. It was a long, hot process, and by the end, both the humans and the honeybees were feeling pretty grouchy. Finishing up, I was stung three times.
I’d never had a serious problem with bee stings before, so I didn’t think too much of it.
On the way home, I noticed my lips, tongue and throat felt slightly swollen, but my breathing was fine. A few days later, we went back to collect the remaining bees and I was stung again. I experienced the same swelling and realized it was an allergic response to the honeybee venom. I was lucky symptoms were not more severe.
Allergic responses to insect venom are characterized by symptoms that show up away from the site of the actual sting. They range from hives, a rash or swelling to respiratory symptoms, abdominal cramps, gastrointestinal issues and fatigue. In severe cases, a life-threatening allergic reaction called anaphylaxis can lead to shock, respiratory distress, laryngeal blockage and loss of consciousness.
Visiting an Allergist
I decided to see an allergist, who scheduled me for allergy skin tests using different types of stinging insect venom. The results showed I had developed an allergy to honeybee venom, though luckily my reactions were not severe.
I was prepared to hear that I would have to give up beekeeping. With every subsequent sting, there was a good chance my allergic reactions would worsen. However, my allergist told me there were other options. If I wanted to keep working with bees, there were three things I needed to do.
- Use more protective gear to avoid stings. For me, this meant using coverall pants as well as a jacket, and using gloves. (In the past I had preferred to work with bare hands.)
- Carry epinephrine auto-injectors with me at all times. Epinephrine is the first-line treatment for anaphylaxis.
- Schedule appointments with my allergist for immunotherapy shots that would help desensitize me to honeybee venom.
I started immunotherapy shots once a week. While this was initially a large time commitment, it gradually tapered off.
The treatment seemed to be working, too. I was stung a few times after starting immunotherapy, with no reaction at all. The treatment was not very painful – no worse than a bee sting – and I never had an adverse reaction to the shots.
I worked my way up to one shot every six weeks, but then I had a setback. I was stung while moving a honeybee colony and experienced another allergic reaction. My allergist dropped me back to one shot every four weeks. I will probably need to continue immunotherapy shots as long as I continue to keep bees.
Immunotherapy is worth it to me because I love beekeeping. I don’t feel as anxious while I am in the bee yard anymore, either.
If you have ever experienced an allergic reaction to insect venom, I highly recommend seeing an allergist to get tested and find out if immunotherapy is right for you.
Jennifer Ford is a science teacher and co-owner of Bees of the Woods Apiary in Altamont, New York. Visit
Reviewed by Andrea Holka