Ban Roll-On (endorsed by diy/doc), $2.99/1.5 ounces. This was endorsed by two pediatricians, though neither would speculate why it supposedly works and, say, Right Guard Sports Stick doesn't. Both questions would be tempting to pursue … if the Ban had worked. Instead of soothing the itch, the Ban displaced it: A small circle around the sting was calmed, while the surrounding area surged to Level 8.
Benadryl Extra Strength Itch Stopping Cream (endorsed by med/diy/doc/rex/mom), $5.59/1 ounce. Antihistamines are supposed to work by suppressing the symptom-producing agents, called histamines, that are released in the body during an allergic response. After ice, Benadryl cream was the most-suggested remedy (though several of my sources—including a pediatrician—insisted that it was useless). It did decrease my symptoms from an 8 to a 5 for around 30 minutes. Benadryl also gets points for being nearly odorless and for drying invisibly, with no flaking. After one hour, though, my symptoms shot back up to 8, where they hovered until I used the next remedy.
CVS Maximum Strength Hydrocortisone Cream (med/diy/doc), $3.29/1 ounce. The smell and consistency reminded me of kindergarten paste. The cream dried visibly white on the skin but reduced the symptoms from 8 to 5 for the first hour and kept them sub-7 for three more hours, at which point they bounced back to 8.
Caladryl (med/diy/mom), $6.49/6 ounces. Calamine lotion with an analgesic, this pain- and itch-killer calmed my symptoms with a soothing tingle. I applied it while my symptoms were raging at 9, and, within 45 minutes, they had sunk to 2. Four hours later, the symptoms suddenly flared up to 10, but I found that I preferred this dramatic seesawing to the gradual return of symptoms I experienced after using other remedies. It felt honest, like the Caladryl was confessing, "OK, I'm done. Time for another dose."
Slice of raw white onion (diy/web), $1.49/pound. Of all the home remedies, the onion had the most stirring testimonials. (Even Ann Landers once passed the tip along in a column.) It was odd, then, that this was the only remedy that seemed to make my symptoms worse. I tried it twice, thinking that I had somehow—how though?—misapplied it. But both times I had similar deleterious results, and I was left trailing a pungent stink in my wake.
Tobacco (doc/mom/web), $5.03/pack Marlboro Lights, $5.79/can Skoal Long Cut Mint. I was pulling for the tobacco. It was even endorsed by the medical establishment. And of all the home remedies, it seemed the most likely to be available at outdoor parties and barbecues, where bee stings often happen (and where smokers are used to doling out cigarettes to moochers). I tried dampened tobacco from cigarettes as well as a few pinches of dip, and alas, neither affected the symptoms, which remained at 9 for the duration of my treatment.
Honey (moi), $5.50/1-pound jar of Jon Quinn's honey. This was my own home remedy, and it seemed like an obvious one, since honey is a folkloric favorite for anything and everything. I thought maybe I'd stumble upon a great curative miracle—that a bee's sting can be healed by its honey. No luck, but the cool and soothing honey did alleviate the symptoms (from 9 to 5) for 30 minutes, which was at least as good as several other remedies.
Paste of vinegar/baking soda/meat tenderizer (diy/doc), $2.59/16.9 ounces vinegar, $2.79/2.25 ounces meat tenderizer. Due to the acid/base interaction of the vinegar and baking soda, the concoction fizzed like an Alka Seltzer on my arm. The symptoms raged on at Level 9 for the first 20 minutes but then began to subside. An hour later, the symptoms had gone down to Level 2, and they stayed that way for several hours. Chalk one up for the meat tenderizer, which contains papain, an enzyme found in papaya that supposedly breaks down the toxins in bee (and other) venom. (Though the meat tenderizer and vinegar made me smell like an antipasto sampler.)
Toothpaste (diy/web), $3.99/tube Crest Advanced Cleaning. Like the Caladryl and meat tenderizer potion, the toothpaste tingled. This not only made it seem medicated, it felt like I was actually scratching the itch, which was both psychologically and physically satisfying. One doctor I spoke to suggested that the glycerin found in most toothpastes dries out the venom concentrated under the sting area. But several others I asked said the tingle was a result of the alkaline toothpaste neutralizing the acid in the bee's venom. Either way, the toothpaste knocked Level 10 symptoms down to 0 in 15 minutes and held them below 7 for more than five hours, one of the only two remedies I tried that did so. The other was the winner of the experiment …
Ice (med/diy/doc/rex/bee/web/mom), universally cheap. Almost every source I checked mentioned ice as a top remedy. And they were all right. Ice works. A 20-minute application knocked out the symptoms almost immediately and kept them subdued for half the day. Ice reduces swelling by constricting vessels and slowing down the flow of venom-tainted blood. By numb force, it also cancels out pain and itching. Its flaw, of course, is its temperature; it can become uncomfortable without some kind of buffer wrapped around it (which, you know, is simple to do). Then again, ice is very easy to find and it's also super cheap. You can even make your own with very little equipment.
So, how did the home remedies stack up against the pharmaceutical offerings? It depends on the home, I guess. The worst home remedies were worse than the worst pharmaceuticals, and the best home remedies better than the best pharmaceuticals. The Caladryl was the sole pharmaceutical remedy I'd use again. If I had to leave the house to go get it, though, I'd buy the meat tenderizer instead and use it in the vinegar/baking soda paste. Yet why bother with either of those when you already use, on a daily basis, the two best bee sting remedies? The winners: toothpaste and ice.