The fear of bees, called “Melissophobia” or “Apiphobia”, is a common one in people. It is generally based on misconceptions; however, some people are extremely allergic to bee stings and must always be prepared with an epipen or other antihistamines.
When many people hear the word “bee”, they think of stinging insects, often seen hovering around their picnics in the summer. But this is an error of identification. Most times people think they are being “chased” by a bee, it’s actually a yellowjacket (a type of wasp). Yellowjackets are carnivorous, unlike bees (which are vegetarians), which is why they are present in the park and around your food while you eat. Bees are not usually interested in food or sweet drinks while they are busy visiting flowers for nectar and pollen! Many people believe that bees will chase and sting you and that they can recruit members of their colony to join them in this “chase”. Bees will rarely sting. They are not aggressive unless provoked and, as they are not territorial, they will not chase to sting for no reason. Wasps are much more aggressively defensive and therefore often more likely to sting when their nests are approached.
There are over 350 species living within the GTA. These vary from large and quite scary looking Virginia Carpenter bees that nest, mostly alone, in wooden fences to tiny little sweat bees that live in small colonies in the dirt in your backyard or even in a flowerbox.
In 2011 there were 107 registered hives in Toronto and that number has surely increased in the intervening years. But while urban beekeeping is touted as the new trend, hives have been kept discretely in the city for many years. In the 1970s, beekeeping equipment was being sold out of downtown’s Little Italy / Little Portugal area, so bees have been kept in town at least a couple generations, perhaps longer.
While there are no municipal by-laws governing beekeeping in Toronto there is the Ontario Bees Act R.R.O. 1990 which requires that all hives in the province be registered with the provincial apiarist. This is done among other things to help control the spread of disease between colonies.
Honeybees (Apis mellifera) are social insects that vary in colour, usually from a yellow-brown to a dark brown, depending on the type. They are about 12.5 mm long with a hairy body. Honeybees feed on flower nectar and also collect pollen to feed their larvae.
In the wild, they usually live in hollowed-out trees and, using wax they have produced, build cells in which to store honey and raise their larvae. Nowadays, however, most honeybees live in manufactured hives provided by beekeepers.
If you see a bee let it be; don’t swat it or step on them. Our bees don’t attack unless they feel they need to defend their hive. Typically, honeybees will only defend the area in front of the entrance to the hive.
Bees usually leave their barbed sting in the skin and then die. Remove the sting as soon as possible (within 30 seconds) to limit the amount of venom injected. Use a hard surface such as the edge of a credit card, car key or fingernail to flick/scratch out the barb.
For a minor reaction such as pain and local swelling, a cold pack may help relieve these symptoms.
If a bee stings you around your neck, or you find it difficult to breathe, or experience any wheezing, dizziness or light-headedness, seek medical advice urgently.
If you have not been stung by a bee before you are unlikely to be allergic to the venom. However, if you have been stung by a bee, there is the potential to develop an allergy. We do not know why some people become allergic and others don’t, but how often you are stung seems to play a role.
If you have experienced very large local reactions from a bee sting, or symptoms separate from the sting site (such as swelling, rashes and itchy skin elsewhere, dizziness or difficulty breathing) you may have an allergic sensitivity. Your doctor can assess you by taking a full history of reactions. Skin testing or blood allergy testing can help confirm or exclude potential allergy triggers.
An allergy specialist is key to assess people’s risk of severe allergic reactions (anaphylaxis).
There is an effective treatment for severe honey bee allergies, called immunotherapy. This involves the regular administration of venom extracts with doses gradually increased over a period of three to five years. This aims to desensitise the body’s immune system, essentially to “switch off” the allergic reaction to the venom.
Urban Beekeeping Good for Cities and Bees. Ontario Bee Journal. July & August 2014.
Bees of Toronto. A Guide to Their Remarkable World. City of Toronto Biodiversity Series, 2016.
Bee aware, but not alarmed: here’s what you need to know about honey bee stings. The Conversation. November 16, 2017
What is a bee? Canada Agriculture and Food Museum 2015.