Bee on a mint blossom - Bee venom allergy - aha! Swiss Allergy Centre - Info on allergies - © Image: @nt/fotolia

Insect venom allergies are mainly triggered by bee and wasp stings. Stings in the mouth and throat area can even cause life-threatening swelling in non-allergic people. There are three or four fatalities across Switzerland annually. Insect venom allergy is not hereditary. People who suffer from bee venom allergy are allowed to eat honey.

Contents overview:
Causes and triggers of bee venom allergy
Symptoms of bee venom allergy
Diagnosis and differential diagnosis
Therapy and treatment
Tips and tricks
Facts and figures
A serious allergic reaction – act correctly in an emergency
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Causes and triggers of bee venom allergy

Bee stings mainly happen in spring and summer. Unlike wasps, bees lose their stinger after stinging. The various bee and bumblebee species differ in their aggressive potential. Bumblebees are the most peaceful of insects with defensive stingers. Bumblebee stings are rare and are harmless to most people.

Symptoms of bee venom allergy

The symptoms of an allergic reaction to a bee sting appear within minutes but not later than one hour after the sting. They range from local swelling to itching, urticaria, vomiting, shortness of breath, palpitations, a drop in blood pressure, loss of consciousness, respiratory arrest and cardiovascular collapse (anaphylaxis).

Diagnosis and differential diagnosis

An initial diagnosis is made after the patient has been questioned, after a skin test and blood tests. Specific IgE antibodies to Hymenoptera toxins can be identified in the blood by various tests. However, these should be done no earlier than three weeks after the sting. The same or similar symptoms can also occur with a food allergy.

Therapy and treatment

People who have ever had an allergic reaction to a bee sting should be told about the risk from being stung again. They are given an emergency kit containing antihistamines, cortisone and possibly an adrenaline prefilled syringe handling and shelf life should be checked regularly. Whenever a sufferer is stung, he should take the prescribed medication immediately, even before an allergic reaction develops. If necessary, the adrenaline syringe should also be used. Desensitisation/specific immunotherapy (SIT) with bee venom is the only effective causal therapy. The treatment lasts 3–5 years and provides complete protection in 80–85% of patients.

Tips and tricks

A bee is rarely alone. Avoid the vicinity of bee colonies. Notify the fire service, local council or swarm collection service of any swarms of bees in the immediate vicinity of your home or workplace.

To avoid bee stings, observe the following rules:

  • Keep your distance from flowers and plants in bloom, do not walk barefoot.
  • Wear dark clothing as far as possible.
  • In the garden wear gloves and clothes with long sleeves as well as long trousers.
  • Do not use any strongly perfumed hairsprays, shampoos or sun creams.
  • Only ride a motorcycle with your helmet closed; wear gloves and clothes that cover the body.

Essential advice for sufferers of bee venom allergy: always carry your emergency kit.

Facts and figures

  • In Switzerland 3.5% of the population suffer from an insect venom allergy.
  • More than 100 stings in adults and 50 in children will trigger poisoning reactions even in non-allergic people.

Editors: aha! Swiss Allergy Centre in co-operation with the Scientific Advisory Board. For prevalence figures, see source references.

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Picture: ©  @nt/fotolia