A Dose of Venom is Good for What Ails You

Today was allergy-shot day. I am still on a weekly schedule, being injected with honeybee venom to try to build up my immunity. Eventually I hope I won’t have to worry about going into anaphylactic shock if I am stung again. I was just diagnosed with a bee allergy earlier this summer, and I’m not quite used to the idea yet. I had a good scare a year ago and then another bad reaction this past summer, so I decided to consult an allergy specialist, who confirmed that I am severely allergic and should do something about it. Since I keep bees and raise a garden filled with plants that bees love, the number 1 recommendation (i.e., stay away from bees) was not going to work for me. I decided to undergo immunotherapy, but until I have built up resistance to bee venom, I carry an epipen in case I’m stung.

Although my reaction was not that severe either time (my main symptom was dizziness), the more I read about anaphylactic shock and the more I thought about how long it had taken the ambulance to arrive at the beeyard, the more I realized how serious the problem could be. I also learned that once you have had a single allergic reaction, you have a 30% to 60% chance of having a similar allergic reaction in the future. I had been stung numerous times before (as a child running barefoot through clover and in the past 12 years since I started working with bees) and had on occasion been stung multiple times at once, but I had never before had an allergic reaction. I did, however, have large local reactions, which occur in about 10% of people. (Apparently, my mother was right to worry when I told her I was going to start keeping bees.)

Some people probably think I should just give up beekeeping, but it’s not that simple. I love being in the bee yard with my husband, especially on warm, sunny afternoons when the bees are buzzing contentedly, flying in from the fields in a straight beeline toward the hives, their pollen baskets filled with bright yellow and orange and red pollen. There is something imminently satisfying about all that industry and the elaborate forms of communication among the workers. I love the smell of the smoke and the wax; I love the creamy texture of freshly drawn comb; I love the taste of honey on my tongue. I love looking out on the world through the mesh of my bee veil at the bees that hover just before my face, as though trying to get my attention and tell me something. I enjoy searching a frame of bees closely to try to find the queen, and I find the contented buzzing of the bees soothing (or at least I did before I learned I was allergic).

Now I must admit that since my diagnosis, I am much less calm than I used to be when thousands of bees are flying about, even on days when they are happy, and I am more attuned to the slightest change in mood, more alert to the different kinds of buzzing that might indicate that the guard bees are, well, “on guard,” ready to attack. I have since begun wearing gloves, which I didn’t used to do; I take care not to stand in the beeline; I always approach the hive from the back; I make sure to wear light-colored clothes; and if the bees seem even a little bit unhappy, I back away from the hives, trying to move slowly, without any jerky movements that might cause them alarm. I look forward to the day, three to five years from now, when perhaps I will no longer be allergic to these fascinating creatures.

close-up photograph of honeybee on yellow flower

This photo of Apis mellifera Western honey bee was taken by Andreas Trepte, http://www.photo-natur.de. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license.

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