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Are winter bee stings worse than others?

Tuesday afternoon was clear and bright, so I went outside to enjoy the balmy sixty-degree sunshine. Bees were flying every which way, so I walked past my garden hives just to see how many bees were outside doing stuff. Lots, it turns out, and they were hauling in a rainbow of pollen.

Once back in the house, I kept feeling an odd sensation on my ankle. I was wearing an old pair of army fatigues—the kind that have ribbon ties at the ankle—so I reached down and re-tied the left one. That seemed to solve the problem, and I continued doing household chores for another couple of hours.

She waited for the right moment

Finally, just before dinner I was cooking at the stove when I suddenly shrieked. I felt like I’d been stabbed in the left thigh with a red-hot poker. It was sudden and excruciating, although I knew exactly what it was. I grabbed my thigh, moaned, and bent double. Then I shook my pant leg until she fell out on the kitchen floor. Dead.

The pain didn’t last long, and I soon forgot about the whole thing. The dog ate the bee which saved me the trouble of picking her up, and life was back to normal. That is, until I changed my clothes.

I couldn’t believe my eyes: the welt on my thigh was a good four inches across, swollen into a hot-to-the-touch circle with a white center and a crimson outline all around the edge. I never saw such a thing before. It looked horrible. Today, two days later, it hasn’t gone away.

The stings of winter

This sting reminded me of the post I wrote last December called “The stings of winter.” My theory was that winter stings are worse than summer stings. I explained how I barely react to stings in spring and summer, but I get big burning, itchy welts from winter bees.

Many of the commenters agreed and said they had similar experiences. Some people thought I was developing an allergy. Some people said they always react that way, no matter what the season.

Now that a year has gone by, I can say for sure that I did not develop an allergy. As in previous years, the cycle repeated. I hardly noticed spring and summer stings this year, but this first winter sting was a killer.

Theories but no answers

I’ve never found any information on this topic, but I now believe that the different physiology of winter bees includes a more powerful sting. This is just theory, of course. But it could be more venom, more concentrated venom, or different venom. It could be an adaptation that winter bees developed in order to better defend their colony. Then again, it could be my imagination.

So once again, I’d like to hear what you have to say. Have you been paying attention? Are the stings of winter worse? And if so, why?

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

Bee hives in winter.
Are the stings of winter bees more powerful than the stings of summer bees? Pixabay photo.

Comments

Clifford
Reply

I don’t know. I was wondering if it had to do with our bodies. The blood flow near the surface is less so the venom stays more concentrated??? I don’t know. Have you tried tea tree oil on the sting site? It does wonders for me. No swelling and redness. It just works GREAT for me.

Rusty
Reply

Clifford,

No. I haven’t tried it, but I have some in the cupboard. I’ll give it a try.

Mike Riter
Reply

Rusty, I don’t know–never been stung in winter. But I do know that honey bee stingers continue to pump poison into the area long after the bee has departed. That’s why the stinger should be removed asp! Could it be in summer you can see the stinger and just naturally pull it out. I’m thinking if you pulled it out immediately you wouldn’t have such a severe problem.

Rusty
Reply

Mike,

Interesting idea. I never even looked at the spot until many hours later. But it didn’t hurt for very long like they sometimes do when the stinger is still there. I will pay more attention next time.

Phillip
Reply

Winter stings are worse because the bees sting with more vigor when it’s cold. The cold air hits them and some 100 million year old instinct tells them they’re going to freeze to death in 30 seconds, so they might as well give it all they got while they can and jab that stinger in there good.

A summertime sting seems almost casual compared to a winter sting. The bee will sting and sometimes even fly away (and die) afterwards in the summer. But with a winter sting, the bee will bend its body like a boxer arching her back, coming in for the jab, putting all her muscle and mass behind the punch, behind the sting.

Am I the only one who’s notice this?

My friendly bees do not mess around once it gets cold. They will clamp onto my legs and dig in. When they get me with a sting like that, they get me good.

A sting like that, if I left the stinger in for a while, would probably inflate my leg like a party balloon.

All of this is just speculation, but to me it seems my bees sting with more determination in cold weather.

Rusty
Reply

Phillip,

This is another theory I really like. And you are right, in winter they have to get the job done fast before they freeze to death, so perhaps they deliver the whole dose at once. Makes sense. The one that got me recently, died right away. Usually, as you say, they fly around for a while first.

Lori Dekker
Reply

Just a thought, no hard science here BUT……. Is it possible that you could have winter allergies that are sub clinical? In other words, not bad enough to cause surface symptoms or whatever your body normally does with allergens, AND that bee sting pushes finally pushes you over the edge into Big Weltsville. My allergist once told me that some of us walk around all season with deep nearly invisible reactions (or maybe just fatigue and crankiness) and only when we get a big wallop of something do we finally cross over into misery.

Rusty
Reply

Lori,

I don’t know. The sting I had was big and red, but it only hurt for about two minutes. I was shocked when I saw it because I had completely forgotten about it.

William
Reply

My bees here on the Olympic Peninsula have been nice and not stung me. However, I found one of my hive entrances blocked today. The bees had stung a large slug to death in the entrance. I also found several striped wasps dead at the front of a hive. I assume the bees had also taken them out. Though I have had slugs and wasp all summer, I have not seen them dying on the spot.

Rusty
Reply

William,

I often have slugs on my hives, but I’ve never seen the bees attack one. Maybe slithering up the front of a hive is not a good long-term plan?

john
Reply

I have not noticed any sting being any worse in the winter than any other time of year: They all hurt. I developed the big red hot swollen itchy welt reactions to to stings 4 or so years ago, a couple years after I started keeping bees. I miss the days of a 45 minutes of stinging then done. Oh well: twice the Benedryl, twice as often, and hope it does not still hurt 4 days later! (Northeast winter-er here…)

Rusty
Reply

John,

I think it’s fascinating that we all so react so differently. I’ll put you down as a “no” (not worse in winter).

Brenda
Reply

I had a sting on my inner thigh in the summer that looked very similar, and the outer circle of redness was about five or six inches across.

No other sting that I have had looked like this, and it itched me crazy! Maybe it’s a thigh thing!

LOL!

Rusty
Reply

Brenda,

Could be. Mine didn’t itch, though it was very bright and colorful.

Steve
Reply

I’m a brand new beekeeper, all of about 3 months now. As I understand it, winter bees can live 4-6 months as opposed to summer bees, only 4-6 weeks. Are there any differences in the bees stinger/venom? Just a thought from a guy that has a lot to learn:)

Rusty
Reply

Steve,

You have restated my question perfectly. Yes, that’s the issue I’m interested in. I know that winter bees are physiologically different than summer bees, but whether that extends to differences in the venom, I don’t know.

Sharon Klemm
Reply

Maybe a call to the state apiarist or a university entomologist with speciality in bees might give you an answer about the insect itself, not the individual reactions to these winter stings, which I think is the question you are asking. I don’t know the answer. Sk

Rusty
Reply

Sharon,

Yes, it’s the insect I’m intersted in learning about. Good suggestion.

Cyndi
Reply

Lavender oil works wonders for any type of sting or bite. Takes the pain and itch away for hours.

Michelle Wolfson
Reply

My stings vary greatly in intensity. Mostly they are a mild annoyance but every once in a while they are hot, swollen and take a week to heal. I can’t figure out the difference except to concur with the Mike’s theory that in the summer I’m more likely to quickly remove the stinger. I was stung three times on my middle finger this summer (don’t remove frames of honey in the late afternoon on an overcast day). My finger swelled for over a week and the spot that was stung became hard and felt callused for around two weeks.

No clue, I healed fine in the end and no I’m not allergic.

Rusty
Reply

Michelle,

I think where they inject you makes a big difference. My legs are definitely more sensitive than my arms, which are not sensitive at all. I always take my rings off before working bees because I’ve seen people with severely swollen fingers who have had to have them cut off (the rings).

Ken Matley
Reply

This is the second time in a week that this question has come up. The first was at a club meeting. A woman who self-treats with bee venom therapy stated that she uses more stings in the winter because, “the venom is weaker.”

Rusty
Reply

Ken,

That’s interesting, the first time I’ve heard the “weaker” theory.

Christy
Reply

I have similar reactions to almost all stings. I’ve been told though, that older bees have a stronger venom. Since winter bees tend to be older than summer bees they may be on to something. If the tea tree oil mentioned in Mr. Clifford’s reply works please let us know. I’m looking into something to help with my stings too. I’m in the process of making an infused plantain/calendula oil for a sting salve for next season.

June Paterson
Reply

l’m surprised to hear talk of ‘pulling out the stinger’. lt is a miniature hypodermic needle and should be scraped off, not pulled. lf you pull it you empty the additional ‘venom’ into your body all at once, rather than in short squirts. You can use a knife, your finger nail, the side of your hand…almost anything, but NEVER pull it.

Rusty
Reply

June,

I think the “pulling out the stinger” is more or less just an expression. Most beekeepers I know scrape them away.

Loralei
Reply

I had a few stings in my first season of managing a colony this year – four, to be exact. One on the face (totally my fault, working frantically to get a robber screen off on a crazy hot day), & two on fingers while I was working the hive – each at different times during the summer, & each not too bad, though the second sting on the finger itched longer and swelled more (late August ). Oct. 30, I was setting the bees up for what I call their winter condo, and left one shoe loose, because I wasn’t going to be there long.. and yup, I got stung on my ankle! It didn’t hurt much, but oh, the itch and the swelling! !! I scratched a bruise onto my ankle, honestly!! And now, recounting the story, I am feeling that very same spot start to itch ….

Rusty
Reply

Loralei,

While I’ve been sitting here reading through these comments, I began to itch all over. The power of suggestion!

Teresa
Reply

I’ve only been stung once in the winter and it did seem to be worse, but not dramatically so.

Rusty
Reply

Thanks, Teresa.

Patrick
Reply

Rusty,

Thinking out loud but wondering with less fluids available to them they might develop a more concentrated venom. Like when we are dehydrated our urine output becomes more dark and orange. I don’t mean to sound offensive just a comparison of how less fluids changes the output.

Also in winter animals have thicker fur and more fat. Another idea is they up the dosage to have the same affect in winter and keep intruders away.

Again, just thinking out loud.

Patrick

Rusty
Reply

Those are all good thoughts, Patrick. Winter bees are loaded with fat that summer bees don’t have. So they probably require more water to metabolize the fat but have less water available, which may indeed concentrate their body fluids. It’s a good hypothesis.

Doug
Reply

In my missive response to your “update” about how much work beekeeping involved I mused about the enjoyment I get pouring my first cup of coffee each morning & checking my two hives to see who’s more active, the Italians or the Russian hybrids. Last week l spent a few extra minutes marveling at how active the Italians in the Langstroth are this time of year compared to the Russians in my top bar.

I returned to the kitchen, put my coffee cup down to complete a couple chores, turned on NPR sat down at the table, took a good sip of coffee, instantly reacted to the unexpected foreign object in my mouth and before I could purge it felt the stinger inside my right upper lip.

As I rapidly scraped the stinger from the interior of my lip and then retrieved it from the back of my front tooth, I couldn’t suppress my feelings of deep remorse for the coffee soaked lady struggling to move on the table.

After quickly stuffing a piece of ice between my lip and gum, I retrieved both the stinger and struggling lady and placed them on a white tissue inside an empty Altoids tin.

Fortunately, although uncomfortable my lip only showed minor swelling after a half hour or so of treatment with ice.

24+hours later: As I was sharing the experience with a neighbor when I opened the tin to show him the stinger – shocker! To my amazement the lady was briskly moving around inside the tin; by evening when I opened it to show my wife and 11 year old son, she’d passed.

Bees, or at least this lady are just amazing.

Doug

Rusty
Reply

Doug,

Omg, that story gave me the heebie jeebies! I must have said something out loud because my husband came in to see what was wrong. It reminds me of a friend who bit into a yellowjacket on his sandwich. The pain!

Glen Buschmann
Reply

Eeeeww. I like insects, but … .

No opinion on sting venom winter vs summer. But, I’ve read that sting pain and poison are not the same. There is a branch of medical research on pain, and certain non-toxic salts, when injected in solution, cause intense pain. Insect sting research is the source of their (demented) knowledge.

Rusty
Reply

Gross.

Tyrel
Reply

It seems to me that if it were a difference in the bee you would have the same reaction in early spring, before the change over between winter bees and their new spring counterparts. (I’m not sure when that would be exactly, perhaps you know?). Or perhaps the venom dissipates in a bee that old.

Certainly the fewer individuals that a hive could lose in winter defense the better, as they are not readily being replaced.

Rusty
Reply

Tyrel,

You bring up some interesting issues. Brood rearing resumes soon after the winter solstice, say late December and early January. I believe those bees do not have the characteristics of winter bees, although I’m not certain. It’s something I would have to research. But if I’m right about that, and if winter bees truly have different sting characteristics, then those early spring bees would not have such powerful stings. Lots of speculation here, but it’s got me on a roll. This is something I will work on. I read somewhere that you can dissect bees and tell winter ones from summer ones. I need to find that information again. Thanks, Tyrel.

Stephen
Reply

I am a beekeeper from the Southern Cape of South Africa and have found something kind of similar. The stings I’ve received during peak summer hardly effect me after the initial zing, no swelling or residual effects. The sting I received just after winter/early spring was much more pronounced. The swelling likewise. Subsequent stings have been less pronounced. I must add that I was stung on my left wrist on an arm severely damaged in an angle grinding accident two years ago. All arteries, nerves, tendons and muscle severed and extremely lucky to have survived and kept the limb. As a result I’ve lost some feeling through the arm, wrist and hand. I initially didn’t feel the sting because of this numbness and when I did, I reckon I squeezed more venom in when removing it. I did work with the hand which may have added to the swelling but it persisted into the following day. I also wonder if the nerve damage didn’t exacerbate the effects of the sting. We are also in the midst of a drought which may cause a concentration of venom. Lots of questions that only more time with the bees will answer, hopefully. Thanks for a great site.

Rusty
Reply

Stephen,

Which kind of honey bees do you keep?

Moya
Reply

Although our winters are mild and I am just completing my first year keeping bees… the sting I received on my finger the other day was extremely painful and continued into the next day. Apart from swelling I hadn’t found bee stings to be that painful… until now. Maybe there’s truth in the matter.

Rusty
Reply

Moya,

So interesting. I’m going to keep paying attention to this.

Nancy
Reply

One more possibility is that it has something to do with the effect of day length on our own physiology. Natural light on the retina stimulates nerves that connect to the pituitary and produce serotonin (wake-up hormone). When the days dwindle, we accumulate higher blood levels of melatonin. It explains both SAD (which is really not a disorder, but an adaptation to the fact that food is scarce and foraging is risky in Winter) and how mammals are able to hibernate for months.
So possibly the shorter daylength and lower blood levels of serotonin decrease our immune system’s ability to react to bee venom. Seasonal depression also affects different people very differently, so it would explain the various reactions and non-reactions too.
One more reason to get out and peek at those hives – we need all the daylight we can get!! Wishing you all a warm safe Winter
Nancy
Shady Grove Farm
Corinth, Kentucky

Ann Gertz
Reply

I think you could possibly be onto something, although when I am stung spring, sumner, or fall I react as you do in winter only. My welts are huge, inflamed & very itchy, although they never hurt. I’m not allergic, but my skin has always been very sensitive to any insect bite/sting. Near the end of this summer I was stung on the face. When it happens to me, I just feel a mild pressure at the spot. But, this sting on the face swelled so badly that it affected my vision on one side of my face. The swelling was so big, it blocked one eye. It stayed that way (in spite of ice packs) for 4 days! What a sight! ????

Rusty
Reply

Ann,

A sting on my face once gave me two black eyes. Don’t know how that works, but it was spectacular. I’m always afraid it will happen right before I have to speak to a group. Can you imagine the effect on potential beekeepers?

Ann Gertz
Reply

It was not pleasant! We left on a short vacation the next morning. I found myself explaining to every stranger what had happened so they wouldn’t assume my husband had punched me!???? ????

Nancy
Reply

Ann – LOL – it happened to me – If I get stung anywhere on my face, the eye on that side swells – but it was the day of our club meeting, so everyone immediately knew what had happened!
Nancy

Ken Rhodes
Reply

This could be a good subject for research/experiment for the U of M Masters Beekeeping course. It might be hard to get volunteers for the experiment side though!

Rusty
Reply

Ken,

I thought of that, too. I would like to know more about winter bees because they seem so different.

Stephen
Reply

Rusty
November 12, 2016 at 8:55 am • Reply
Stephen,
Which kind of honey bees do you keep?

I keep Capensis or Cape Honey bees, endemic to this area only. They are slightly smaller than the other bees in Southern Africa and a little less aggressive. They are considered parasitic bees.

Rusty
Reply

Stephen,

I thought you might keep Cape honey bees, based on your location. Usually we hear about them only in reference to parthenogenesis or social parasitism. That you keep them in their endemic area is cool.

Joe
Reply

I read somewhere that older bees have more bacteria growing on their stinger than younger bees and it is these bacteria that cause allergic reactions. In winter all of your bees are relatively old so this is one possible explanation.

Rusty
Reply

Joe,

I never heard this theory before but it makes so much sense. Thank you!

Wanda
Reply

My theory….In the winter bees often don’t eliminate their bodily waste for many weeks. It could be when a bee engages her stinger, some of her long, held on frass comes out with the stinger which could produce a stronger reaction under our skin.

Rusty
Reply

Wanda,

Someone else mentioned a similar idea, and the more I think about, the more I think it is a real possibility. It would be interesting to culture the microbes on the stingers of winter bees vs. summer bees.

Pedro
Reply

Hi,

Could I suggest an experiment? Keep a record of the date of the stings along with the year so you could check if the intensity of your reaction is a function of the interval between stings, the assumption being that the further apart they are the bigger the reaction as one loses tolerance.

In spring and summer the stinging is often and few days apart, inducing tolerance, while in winter people get less stung and lose tolerance.

Does this mechanism sound like a possible explanation?

Rusty
Reply

Pedro,

It certainly sounds like a possibility. One thing I would have to control for is where the stings occurred. I’m always more sensitive on my face than on my hands, and more sensitive on my legs than my arms, so I couldn’t compare a summer sting on the face to a winter sting on my ankle. Location would have to be part of the data.

Pedro
Reply

You are right, of course. Another variable, even more difficult to control for, would be the amount of venom injected.

It might be the case that the interval between stings and a measure of the relative exuberance of reaction when considering the topography of the sting has a strong enough signal to come out among the different variables. But you are right that where one gets stung plays a role in measuring the reaction.

Maybe the reaction could be measured as: mild for the body part stang; average for body part; exuberant for body part. So one would get pairs of data of lenght of time since last stang/relative reaction. And then test the hypothesis if there is a difference in the frequency of exuberant reactions with the interval between stings (or just get a general feeling).

I had an immunology class the other day about allergy to bee venom (among other things) and I asked the immunologist specifically about this. He said he had no knowledge of the bee venom being any different acording to time of the year and he suggested the winter dessensitivation due to sparsity of stings as the possible mechanism.

Of course it doesn’t mean there isn’t a difference in bee venom with seasons, I just thought it would be neet to try and rule out or accept the interval between bites as the possible mechanism!

Rusty
Reply

Pedro,

I notice also that sometimes I just get nicked by a stinger. If I’m wearing thick clothing it seems their stingers don’t reach far enough and they just barely make skin contact. Sometimes the stinger doesn’t embed and I just get a slight itchy place where it nicked me. I wonder how to count those.

Pedro
Reply

Maybe just make your evaluation of each situation. Was the reaction less, as expected or more exuberant than you expected for the situation? In the case you mention I take it you got the reaction you expected when you consider the circunstances, and I think that is a great way to evaluate it, using your judgement of the reaction you expected and the one you got!

Adam
Reply

My winter stings are most certainly worse.

Chuck
Reply

Hi rusty,

Great info from interesting folks..i live in so cal and have a hive in an old ceramic kiln outside that began last year…i am not a beekeeper but was fascinated enough to let them do their thing. Our kitten was playing with something so i went over to see what it was and sure enough i took a bee away from him and transferred from hand to hand walking it outside when the little brat stung me on outside of thumb…this was mid February but still “cold” for southern California….the itching and swelling lasted days and i was instantly aware these bees could be a lot more dangerous than i was giving them credit for…i guess ill have to wait till my summer sting(s) to compare and will let you know!!

Rusty
Reply

Chuck,

Cute story. Yes, definitely let us know what you observe in the summer. I’m fascinated by stings of the season.

Culien
Reply

I remember hearing that sometimes the reaction to the sting can be intensified by what the bee has been in contact with? True? Pesticides? Or possibly plants that are known for irritating skin?

Rusty
Reply

Culien,

I imagine anything like that could have an effect.

Matt
Reply

Hey just got a doozy of a winter bee sting to the forearm this week, and hands down it was way worse than my summertime sting. The sting was through a bee glove so the stinger was not in very long but had a big punch and lots of swelling and heat for days after. I do think there is something to this. I emailed the u of m bee squad so we will see what they have to say. I’m glad I’m not the only one that takes hits like this in beekeeping!

Kathy Alexander
Reply

Really happy to read this article! Thanks!

I have been stung, spring, summer etc. Not so much the last couple years, as I have learned to be more slow and gentle. Three summers ago; I had a nasty hive that gave me over 20 stings at once, though! According to some folks (who offer unsolicited opinions), I’m an idiot for not even owning a bee suit; but my gals are normally quite gentle. Three days ago; however…lovely day, our first! I decided to visit and assess all the hives, and i got one poor gal up my sleeve. I didn’t realize for awhile and squeezed her a bit as I was picking up the top cover. Yeow! Hurt like the dickens, and I rushed to scrape out the stinger. My arm is still swollen, itchy, looking like it belongs to someone three times my weight, lol!

So, the reason I’m happy to read your article and see all these comments, is that I had been secretly very worries that I had developed an allergy. That would very much suck, as I have become semi-retired this year, and have had 100% success with over-wintering my hives! 🙂

Thanks again!

Bonnie Johnson
Reply

The comments have been very interesting to read. My husband has been stung many times without issue, but was stung in late October a year ago and had a severe reaction that landed him in the ER and they told him to carry an epipen. It is interesting that he has been been stung several times since without any kind of a reaction. We have mentioned it to several people that perhaps whatever the bees were into that time of year is something that he is allergic to. Other beekeepers have said that was an interesting thought. The doctors said no that is not possible.

Thanks very interesting article and comments!

Rusty
Reply

Bonnie,

Maybe there are things the doctors don’t know about. As you can see, lots of people have noticed this phenomenon.

Martha Ann Gertz
Reply

Hi Rusty,

I’ve never been stung in the winter, but I’ve read that the sting is worse & a number of different theories to explain it.

I get a horrible reaction to stings. I’m not allergic, but “extremely sensitive”. I went to an allergist to try to get something to alleviate the problem, but was told – “nothing would help it”, and it’s “not an allergy”, & “it will never turn into an allergy.” The Guy was not in the least sympathetic or helpful! $50 wasted!! I was told that if I don’t get the symptoms of throat swelling, trouble breathing, etc it’s not an allergy. Also, when the swelling doesn’t progress beyond the second set of joints past the sting, it’s just a sensitivity. i.e.: I was stung on the hand & the swelling went past the wrist, up to my elbow, but not beyond.

The stings do not hurt me at all, but the reaction is as you say – very swollen, very hot & red, & my entire swollen area itches like crazy! Needless to say, I completely suit up when working with my bees!

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