Above: Image © Btownchris, iStockPhoto

It’s summer. The birds are chirping. All of a sudden, you hear a buzzzzzzz. You know that sound: it’s a bee!

Should you worry? Not necessarily. Bees only sting when they feel threatened. Stinging is just their way of defending themselves.

But even though bees are small, their venom can mean big trouble for the people they sting. And the longer a bee’s stinger stays in your skin, the more venom is released and the more damage is done. This is true even if the bee flies off and leaves its stinger behind in your skin.

But what exactly happens to your body when you're stung by a bee?

Did you know? When a bee stings, its venom sac and some muscles are torn from its body. This leads to its death.

A cell killer that dissolves in water

Bee venom is water-soluble. In other words, it dissolves in water. Since most of the human body is made up of water, that means bee venom can spread quickly and effectively. That’s not a pretty picture!

Bee venom is also cytotoxic. That means it can destroy cells, including blood cells. That’s why your body swells up and reddens at the site of a bee sting. Most of the damage is caused by a chemical called melittin, which causes your body to release a compound called histamine.

Source: Wikimedia

Caption: A bee’s stinger (Arunbc1987, Wikimedia Commons)

When a bee stings you, it releases a peptide called melittin into your body. Melittin destroys cells by breaking up their membranes. It also stimulates your body’s pain receptors.

Melittin can also cause your body to release a compound called histamine. It plays an important part in your immune system. When your body experiences an upset like an infection or inflammation, histamine helps your immune cells deal with the problem.

However, histamine does have an important side effect: it makes the affected area swollen and tender. If you’ve ever been stung by a bee, you’ve probably felt these symptoms! The melittin in bee venom causes your body to release histamine, but bee venom actually contains a small amount of histamine, too.

Did you know? Only female bees can sting you.

What to do if you’re stung

So you should grab the stinger and yank it out of your body as soon as possible, right? Not exactly. When a bee stings, only some of the venom from the stinger enters your body. Pulling the stinger straight out can force even more venom into your body. A safer bet is to scrape the stinger out of your skin at an angle, using your fingernail.

If you are allergic to bee stings, they can cause an allergic reaction called anaphylaxis.  You’ll breathe harder and your skin will begin to swell up like a balloon. Anaphylaxis can be deadly, so you’ll need medical help right away!

If you’re severely allergic, your doctor may have you carry an epinephrine injection, like an EpiPen or a generic alternative. The injection will help calm your allergic reaction, and give you more time to find medical help. Your doctor may also suggest you wear a medical alert bracelet. This will inform doctors and anyone else trying to help you about your allergy.

Did you know? Melittin, a chemical in bee venom, could potentially stop the spread of HIV. Experiments have shown that melittin can kill HIV virus cells by poking holes in their protective shell.

After the sting

For most people, the symptoms of a bee sting go away after about three days. Your body flushes the wound with blood fluids to get the venom out. Until then, if the sting is really irritating, try using calamine lotion. This lotion forces the moisture from the skin to evaporate, creating a cool sensation. You can also use antihistamine creams to reduce swelling and tenderness.

Bee stings are harmless as long as you are not allergic to them. If you are allergic, help is available. Whether you’re allergic or not, bee stings certainly do itch—and hurt! Just remember, the next time a bee comes close to you: don’t move or threaten the bee, and you probably won’t get stung!

Learn More!

About bees and their venom:

Bee Venom and the Chemistry of Ouch (2016)
Sharla Riddle, Bee Culture

Chemical Components of Insect Venoms (2015)
Compound Interest

Why do bee stings hurt so bad? (2010)
H. Whipps, Live Science

The Chemistry of Bees
J. Loveridge, University of Bristol

About histamine:

What is Histamine? (2014)
A. Mandal

Histamine (2016)
Encyclopedia Britannica

Foods that contain Histamine or Cause the body to release histamine, including fermented foods (2015)
J. Tulin-Silver & S. Kinhal

Histamine Intolerance (2015)
J. Joneja, Foods Matter

Suendues Noori


I am an undergraduate chemistry student from Windsor, Ontario, Canada. I am a passionate Let's Talk Science Volunteer, and in my spare time I like to read, work at the farm, and organize just about everything.

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