If you’ve ever been stung by a bee, you are most likely able to recall the nasty side effects associated with the sting—such as the sharp pain, redness, and swelling at the site of the attack. While bee stings prove to be mostly harmless (90 to 100 individuals die every year from allergy-related complications, according to the Centers for Disease Control), they do produce incredible reactions in the body.
Yes, though you may not know it, beneath the surface of the sting, your body is working hard to fight against the bee’s venom—and in nearly all cases, your body provides an impeccable line of defense. So, to peel back the curtain on the relentless systems that keep your body in check every day, here, we reveal what exactly happens to your body during a bee sting—and why you should feel just a bit safer the next time one of these pesky critters flies your way.
It releases a peptide into your body that destroys cells.
First of all, it’s important to understand that bee’s venom is water-soluble, meaning that it dissolves in water. This proves to be bad news when injected into the human body, which is mostly made of water, allowing for the venom to spread more quickly. The bee’s venom is also cytotoxic, which means that it destroys blood cells immediately upon entering the body; that’s why your skin becomes red and swollen at the site of the sting, according to Curiocity.
It stimulates your body’s pain receptors.
Upon injecting its stinger into your skin, the bee releases a peptide into your body called melittin, which destroys cells by breaking up their membranes. On top of that, according to Curiocity, this peptide stimulates your body’s pain receptors, which explains the burning sensation at the site of the sting.
Your body releases histamine.
To help your immune system fight the spreading of venom, the melittin actually triggers your body to produce a compound: histamine. Basically, this release of histamine occurs every time your body needs to fight an infection or inflammation. This release of histamine is actually what makes the sting site swollen and tender to the touch.
Red blood cells at the site of the sting burst.
The introduction of melittin in your system hasn’t stopped affecting your body just yet, according to The Magazine of American Beekeeping. As it turns out, 50 percent of venom’s dry weight comes from this abundant ingredient, which causes red blood cells at the site of the incident to burst.
Your blood pressure drops.
With the bursting of the red blood cells at the site of the sting, comes the eventual expansion of your blood vessels, which can cause your blood pressure to drop significantly after a bee sting, says The Magazine of American Beekeeping.
The venom destroys your nerve tissue.
Three percent of bee venom is the protein apamin, which, when injected into your body, actually destroys nerve tissue. This destruction is part of the reason why there is a sharp pain associated with a bee sting.
Hyaluronidase in the venom helps it spread throughout your body.
Further, according to The Magazine of American Beekeeping, two percent of the bee’s venom is made up of hyaluronidase, which helps it spread to surrounding tissues by breaking down one of the components of the body’s cell tissue.
Your kidneys work overtime.
Since the bee’s venom damages cell tissue in the body, it’s the kidney’s job to eliminate this damaged tissue in order to keep the body healthy and ready to face further traumas. But don’t worry: The only time that the kidneys may be damaged is when the person affected is stung multiple times, as this can present an overabundance of damaged cell tissue for the kidneys to repair, clogging the kidneys and possibly leading to their failure days after the stings occur, according to The Magazine of American Beekeeping.
Your body releases white blood cells to fight the venom.
When you’re stung by a bee, your body’s first line of defense comes in the form of white blood cells that arrive to fight off antigens in the bee’s venom. Again, as this war wages in your body, redness, swelling, heat, and pain may occur at the site of the sting as the body wards off further invaders.
The proteins in the venom stimulate the heart and adrenal glands.
According to Dr. Alan Greene, MD, the proteins present in a bee’s venom, like apamin, melittin, phospholipase, and hyaluronidase, stimulates the heart and adrenal glands to work harder in order to push the infection out of your body. In turn, this can cause your pulse to weaken, or in extreme cases when you are allergic to the venom, to speed up. The proteins cause the adrenal glands to produce cortisol (that’s the hormone that causes you stress) to protect the body from further infection.
Your nervous system is inhibited.
Further, these proteins previously mentioned also inhibit your nervous system, which can cause a delayed reaction to the bee sting by the rest of the body.
Your body’s response is delayed.
Though delayed responses to bee stings are incredibly rare, they do occur in 0.3 percent of all those exposed to this potent venom. These delayed responses usually occur in those with a weak immune system, as the body’s defenses are not able to coordinate a proper response to the sting. While symptoms of this delayed response can vary, they can appear as inflammation of the brain, nerves, blood vessels, and kidneys, with the additional possibility of a serum sickness which can cause a rash, fever, or joint pain, according to Dr. Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD.
Your immune system can overreact.
In the most serious and rare cases, your immune system can overreact to a bee sting, causing a life-threatening allergic response called anaphylaxis, according to the Mayo Clinic. Though this only happens to 5 to 7 percent of those stung by a bee, an overreaction by your immune system can be deadly, with symptoms ranging from minor (hives and itching) to severe (a loss of consciousness).