When it comes to bee stings, most of us react somewhere between Smithers on The Simpsons—for whom one sting nearly meant death—and Jon Quinn, a beekeeper I visited recently, who was once stung more than 40 times and still had the wherewithal to count as he extracted the stingers. (Quinn's decade and a half of beekeeping had desensitized him to the venom.) For most, a sting means aching and swelling accompanied by a maddening itch.
All of which I had forgotten until this past Fourth of July, when I was stung on the back of my arm. Surprised by the sudden pain, I slapped the bee off my arm, dug the stinger out, and went inside to ask for treatment advice. Everyone had a different answer. Ice! Tobacco! Benadryl! Butter! Ban Roll-On! I tried a handful but did so in such a haphazard way—sometimes applying two remedies at once—that I gave none of the remedies an opportunity to be effective. Or, if any were effective, I had no way of knowing which had worked. The symptoms finally died down after four and a half days, but the experience left me wondering: How exactly are you supposed to treat a bee sting? To find out, I went back for more.
First, I looked into treatments. I consulted mainstream medical manuals (signified, below, by "med") published by Merck, Johns Hopkins, Harvard Medical School, the American Medical Association, and the Mayo Clinic. I thumbed through a stack of family-health guides like "Symptoms: Their Causes & Cures," by the editors of Prevention ("diy"). I polled local beekeepers ("bee"), a few pediatricians ("doc"), a gaggle of pharmacists ("rex"), an entomologist in northwestern Massachusetts ("bug"), and my own family ("mom"). To track down more obscure home remedies, I poked around gardening and health Web sites ("web"). I decided to stay away from herbal soups that called for, say, a dram of lavender oil and a tablespoon of bentonite clay. (I assumed, maybe rashly, that most of you don't stock a vial of lavender oil in the medicine cabinet.)
Once I had my arsenal of remedies, I was ready to be stung.
The Stings I visited Jon Quinn, the beekeeper who runs North Forty Apiaries, in Woodbury, Conn. Quinn held a bee with tweezers, shook it a little to anger it, and placed it over the area where I wanted to get stung. On my first trip, I received two stings, one on the top of each hand. Four days later, I returned for two more, which I took on the top of each forearm. A week later, I still had several remedies to test, so I went to another beekeeper (Quinn was out of town) and got another on my right hand. After each sting, I scraped out the stinger. All stings were equally painful and the symptoms developed at about the same rate.
I kept a running log of my symptoms—pain, swelling, and itching—quantifying the severity on a scale from 0 (asymptomatic) to 10 (severe). I logged a symptom score every half-hour, except while I was sleeping, of course. This allowed me to look back at the arc of relief each remedy provided (or failed to provide). I left the remedies on the sting areas for 25 minutes to 45 minutes (depending on suggested use), then (as gently as possible) cleaned the sting area. On average, I tested two remedies per day on each of the stings, spacing the applications at least five hours apart (a frequency based on the maximum number of times—three or four—you're supposed to use an antihistamine or anti-itch cream in one 24-hour period). However, I used the remedies on an as-needed basis: If a remedy worked so well that the symptoms went away for longer than five hours, then I waited that long to apply the next remedy. I set my symptom score threshold at 7, the point at which symptoms became so severe that I had trouble concentrating on anything else. So if it had been at least five hours since I'd used the last remedy and my symptom score had returned to 7 or higher, then I knew it was time to apply the next remedy. Once a sting's symptom score no longer returned to at least 7, I quit testing on that sting area. On average, I treated each sting for two and a half days.
Some of the remedies I came across were supposed to "cure" the sting, either by breaking down the toxins in the venom or suppressing the release of pain- and itch-causing agents in the blood. Other remedies were only supposed to "soothe" the sting by relieving the symptoms. I was interested in symptom relief, especially since the effects of a bee sting usually last only a few days and don't pose any long-term problems. I judged the remedies on how well and for how long they relieved the swelling, pain, and itching. I also considered their appearance, aroma, ease of preparation, and price—though honestly, when it comes to bee sting remedies, all that really matters is what stops the itch.
I broke down the remedies into two groups: pharmaceutical remedies and home remedies (with their endorsers in parentheses). My findings, from worst to first:
Skeeter Stik (endorsed by web), $1.99, and Survivor Gel Stick, $1.99.These two insect-bite/sting "relief sticks" contain benzocaine, the anesthetic that powers toothache medicines like Anbesol. Benzocaine deadens nerve endings, so that the symptoms aren't transmitted to your brain. These remedies come in compact tubes that would be perfect to pack for fishing or camping trips. They would be perfect, that is, if they worked. The sticks immediately knocked Category 9 symptoms down to around 5. But a quarter of an hour later, the symptoms were back up to 9.