The Irony: A Beekeeper Allergic to Bees?

honey and pollen

Yes, it’s possible. I’ve been keeping bees for 4 years now. Between Darek and I, we manage 10-11 hives throughout neighborhoods in Chicago. In my time of keeping bees, I’ve been stung about a dozen times. In the first couple years, reactions were local with redness and some swelling.

Towards the end of last year’s beekeeping season, I thought my reactions to bee stings were potentially getting worse. To my understanding, they were still considered local reactions and not a sign of an allergy, however I did notice that reactions used to be a lot smaller and more local. For instance, when I get stung in the fingertip my whole hand swells up extending halfway down my forearm. Yes – this is considered a normal reaction.

bee sting

This spring, I’ve been stung 3 times. The reaction from my first sting was not bad, but may have been because it had been 7 months since my last sting which lessened the reaction. Then last week a bee got under my jacket and stung me twice through my shirt. She did not lose her stinger on the first sting because the stinger did not fully insert into my skin. Swelling was mild and I felt fine, which is very normal. In the above photo, this was right after the sting. The red mark was the second sting, the first was just below and a lot smaller. No hive reaction present.

Days later after sharing this story with some friends at work, they had a bit of an intervention with me regarding their worries about me continuing to keep bees after hearing of my reactions to the stings. After further research I found that after having a reaction with hives, chances of an anaphylactic reaction greatly increase on the next sting. Pretty scary – and sad.

At the end of last season, I got a prescription for an epipen to have it, but never filled it. I will now be filling the prescription as it is possible to develope an allergic reaction to bee stings. I might add that I wear full gear- hooded jacket, gloves, gaiters around my ankles. But it is inevitable that you get stung as a beekeeper. In fact, I don’t get stung while inspecting, it is usually after I walk away from the site and brush off and remove my gear or get into my car.

After this occurance, I made an appointment with an Allegist/Immunologist at Northwestern. Her opinion on it based on the photo and description I shared with her was that I was not allergic, but yes an allergy is possible to develop. Those who are allergic can start a bee therapy plan where they receive bits of allergens over a period of time (I’ve read anywhere from 12 months to 5 years). There is also something called rush immunology, which would take affect quicker but not last as long, still requiring the long term therapy.

pantsless beekeeper

Here I had two bees crawl up my pants and had to remove my pants temporarily. Boy that would not have been good!

I’ve grown quite fond of beekeeping and don’t want end my adventures, but also don’t want to put my life at risk!

foundationless comb

Some newly installed bees building foundationless comb. Hard at work!

burr comb

Here is some more newly built comb but it was between frames. It is referred to as burr comb. We made use of this and reinserted it into another empty frame.

two queens

Another fascinating observation- here are two queens from separate hives. The one on the right is far darker than the light colored one on the left. This is probably the darkest queen I have every come across.

packages in car

When we received our new bees this year, we picked up 6 packages from Lee Heine in Waterton, WI. Darek and I drove up there one morning, loaded them up, and headed back to Chi-town for the installations.

For this method of installation, I placed the package directly in the hive in place of 10 frames. It was too cold to do the traditional pouring of bees. I would later return to the site and remove the empty package from the hive.

This is what you see more of for package installations. You’ll notice I left the frame after pouring because things got a little crazy. I was able to pour this one because at this point in the day, things warmed up a bit and the sun was shining. If I could get the package in there and not need to disturb them again for a while, that would be great.

bees around queen cage

And finally this is a queen cage covered in bees. The bees are simply attracted to the pheromone scent of the queen are probably trying to tend to her with food and cleaning. Wouldn’t that be nice!


7 thoughts on “The Irony: A Beekeeper Allergic to Bees?

  1. Smiling. I just started keeping bees myself……and lo-and-behold, I am seriously allergic [never was throughout my life, and as an avid gardner and outdoors person, I’ve been stung many times {I like to walk barefoot in my fields]. Epi-pen in tow, I tend to my bees [which I’m absolutely in love with].

  2. My husband just started our first hive 2 weeks ago (using a nuc), and of course I’m the only one to have been stung yet! It’s been like Christmas morning for us to open the hive each week to check on it. I look forward to blogging our progress, and am glad to see others doing the same!

  3. I am (was) a beekeeper and I am (was?) allergic. I started keeping bees in 2008 but didn’t become allergic until 2013. I never had anything other than a normal reaction, but the thing I noticed was that an old sting site would itch when I got a new sting.

    I started venom immunotherapy a few months after the “event” in 2013 and finally in 2015 am at the point that I can take a sting and not go into anaphylactic shock. My allergist doesn’t practice rush therapy or sublingual therapy with venom… too dangerous. I haven’t had bees in my own backyard the last couple of years but have visited my bees in other beekeepers’ (beesitters, if you will) yards. In addition to always carrying my Epi-pens, I now I own a full beesuit. Beekeeping while allergic certainly isn’t the smartest idea but I think there are lots of us out there.

  4. Just wanted to share my experience with being allergic to bee stings, and maybe offer a bit of hope to others. I’ve kept bees for 2 years, been stung several many times, and then one day while in the field (not even doing anything with the bees) was stung by a passer-by. As a result, I learned I’m allergic to bee venom, and had an awful anaphylactic reaction, including: swelling of throat and mouth, couldn’t talk and couldn’t breathe, the conjunctive eye-ball membrane swelling along with my entire face. It was awful. An ambulance ride, an Epi-shot, lots of Benadryl and other antihistamines, and about 8-10 hours at the hospital later…it was much better. But, this left me with the worries about what do to now that I’m a beekeeper with 20+ hives, that is allergic to bees. Subsequently, I’ve also had the family “intervention talk.” Some members of my family have threatened to take care of my beehives (via shotgun practice) since the incident. I love beekeeping, and my bee yard, and don’t want to give that up!

    Since that happened, about 2 months ago, I have been stung several times. One day I was stung twice: once on my shin (through my cotton suit), and once on my knuckle (though my gloves). No anaphylactic reaction that time. Took 1 Benadryl for the itching and swelling. All good! Note it was through my suit, so maybe less venom made it less of a reaction?

    AND just TODAY–mowing in the bee yard, and got stung on the left upper arm (no suit/no shirt sleeve between). I took 1 Benadryl, and could tell I needed to take another. So I did. I had a bit more of a reaction today, including: itching all over, instant runny nose, and my left eye swelling just a little. But, the second Benadryl took care of those issues. So, I am proof that just because you have a REALLY bad bee sting reaction one time, doesn’t mean that you always will have that same reaction. So have hope fellow beekeepers!!

    • I’m glad you shared your saga, Shelley. Beekeeping is impossible to give up, at least for me, and I only have 2 hives. Strangely, the sting where I found out I was allergic was by a passer-by as well. I wasn’t working the hive, but she came and head-butted me and then stung me. I think she didn’t like my black shirt.

      My sting kit includes Epi-pens, fast-acting liquid Benadryl, and Pepcid (or Tagamet) which is useful if your histamine reaction is gastrointestinal. If I could get my hands on some Prednisone, I’d include that, too. Those are the things I was given the two times I was treated for anaphylaxis.

  5. Wow, that’s some dedication to the craft. I can’t imagine struggling with the desire to do something which was such a source of passion, but having to worry about my own health. I wish you the best of luck, and hope you find some good news, and don’t have to quit what you obviously love.

  6. Wow. so needed to read this. I am in year 6 and if stung once in leg or arm, experience massive swelling after applying PRID and taking pills of Benadrl every 4 hours. If stung more than once or by a wasp of sorts, I am down for 3 days with swelling, heat, itching and fever. Thought i had it figured out, but yesterday something landed on my cheek and immediately stung. I had immediate itchy allover after applying PRID and taking benadryl. Soon after I was dizzy, sight was sketchy, fell to ground and vomited. Call 911, fainted, ambulance ride and probably 2000k in injections, and 6 hours in hospital. Completely emotionally crushed and broke. WIll look into this Rush Therapy because I love my girls and need them. Also looking into allergy investigation because not sure what stung me. Just sitting in yard preparing a spring hive inspection when something stung me. (hives on top of roof) No honeybee guts and very unusual for a honeybee to act as it did.

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