Allergies! How bees can help and hurt

Recently, I asked my family and friends if they had questions about bees, insects, or anything generally related to my research, and I was flooded with excellent questions (Why haven't you been asking these all along?!)! I'll be writing up and posting responses to these questions. 

One of the reoccurring topics asked about was allergies. 

First, lets start by describing what "allergies" are. According to the US Center for Disease Control (CDC), allergies, or allergic reactions occur when a person's immune system overreacts to the presence of a substance in a way that is abnormal compared with other people. Substance can be a tricky word, because a substance can enter the body in a lot of different ways. Allergic reactions can be caused by eating something, breathing something into your lungs or nasal passages, or absorbed through the skin. The difference between referring to something as an allergy compared with a toxic reaction is dependent on how the majority of the population experiences that substance. The example I will give is this: There is a subset of the human population that is allergic to Brazil nuts (myself included). Our bodies' reaction to eating these nuts could range from itchy rash, to difficulty breathing, to death. Without knowing what the substance was (in this case, nuts), and were I only to describe the reaction, it would be hard to distinguish this from a poison. To me, Brazil nuts are effectively a poison. But, here is where the nuance lies: for the general public, Brazil nuts do not pose a threat. My reaction to Brazil nuts is abnormal when compared with the majority of other individuals of my species (human, in case you weren't sure). A poison would thus refer to something that adversely affects most of the population of a species, for example, cyanide. The reaction that my immune system would have to cyanide exposure would not differ much from anyone else's, we would likely all suffer some pretty terrible consequences.

Now that we've cleared up what an allergy is, we can get to the questions. The first was this: What are good ways for people who are allergic to bees to deal with them? This is a great question, and one I spend a lot of time thinking about. First off, if you suspect you have an allergy to stinging insects, please get tested for confirmation. Your doctor can discuss options for treatment, including carrying an epinephrine injector or pursuing allergy immunotherapy treatments. Some allergies (such as my Brazil nut allergy) can cause very little disruption to your life as long as you pay attention (I just don't eat Brazil nuts). However, bees, wasps, and stinging ants (they're not all the same, we'll talk about it on a future post) are nearly impossible to avoid 100% of the time, and severe allergy to stings can result in anaphylaxis and death.

If medical treatment or consultation is not an option for you, the best way to avoid being stung is to stay out of a stinging insect's path, and avoid making dramatic movements if you notice you are near one. I repeat: flailing never helps! Stinging insects are not always aggressive, and if left alone, they'll leave you alone. However, they can be defensive of their nests, so keep your eyes and ears open when you are outdoors during insect season (early spring through late fall in the northern hemisphere). Pay attention to visual and sound cues, and if you see an insect or hear a buzzing sound, try to avoid whoever is making it. If being outdoors in areas that harbor stingers is unavoidable, wear long pants and sleeves, closed toed shoes, and keep long hair tied back. Many stinging insects are drawn to bright colors, particularly blue, white and yellow, so avoiding wearing those colors may also reduce potential interaction.  

If you notice a lot of stinging insects in an area where you spend a lot of time (work or home, for example), it might be worth reaching out to a professional. My first recommendation would be to try contacting either your county extension office or a local beekeeping society. If you have bees, they can help you remove them without damaging the colony. If it turns out you have wasps or ants, these specialists can help you contact someone else for removal. Many pest removal experts are able to remove nests and insects safely and alive. The insects are then sold to have venom removed for use in immunotherapy treatments. Ideally it won't be necessary to bring in a chemical treatment, but that option is always available if needed.

If you react to stings less acutely, for example if you get swelling or itchy, that may not be an allergy, but you should still pay close attention to your breathing, heart rate, and any swelling outside of the sting location. Local swelling and itching is relatively normal. In our lab, we follow this protocol: If you get stung, remove yourself from the area into a temperature controlled area, sit down, and take a selfie. I know, it seems weird, but I'll explain. Use a timer to take your heart rate, and record the number. Drink some water. Wait 10 minutes. Take another selfie, then take your heart rate again. If your heart rate is the same or lower, that is good. If it has gone up, seek medical help. If it is the same, check the selfies. Compare the first and second photos, and look for any swelling of the face, particularly around the eyes and throat. If there is any swelling, seek medical help. If your face isn't swelling (presuming the sting wasn't in the face or neck), and your heart rate is relatively normal, go ahead and resume whatever you were doing. These precautions are to help you monitor how you're reacting to a sting. Typical reactions include pain and swelling at the site of the sting, itching at the site of the sting, and maybe light bruising, depending on the location. Finally, if your doctor has prescribed an epinephrine injector as a treatment for severe allergic reaction, keep it with you whenever you go out.

The other question that was asked regarding allergies was this one: does eating local honey actually help with seasonal allergies? 

 This is another great question! Eating locally sourced honey can help only so far is it tastes delicious and may take your mind off the sneezing for a bit. Even honey that is raw and unfiltered, and contains pollen, probably does not contain much or any of the pollen that's causing your allergies. Again, according to the CDC, hay fever is one of the most common allergies affecting US people. Hay fever is caused by grass pollen floating around in the air, and then being breathed in by people. Grasses are wind pollinated, and don't offer nectar resources for bees, so bees are not collecting this pollen. Pollen is unique to plant species, so an allergy to one type of pollen doesn't mean you have an allergy to another. The pollen collected by bees is typically much heavier, with larger grains, because it relies on bees to carry it around, and is therefore unlikely to be floating around landing in your nose. The idea that eating locally sourced honey does make sense, and relies on the same principles as immunotherapy: increased rate of exposure causes your immune system to stop responding as dramatically to the allergen. The reason it doesn't work the same way for honey is that there is no guarantee that the honey you are eating contains the pollen that's making you sneeze.

Thank you so much to Rebecca and Kristine for these questions! 

If you have a question, please feel free to submit them to me by clicking the Contact Us! button on the top of the page (or the link in this text).