Wasps and bees can put us in a bit of a panic.

But some people have more reason than most to be anxious because, for them, a sting can cause a dramatic – and potentially life threatening – allergic reaction.

It’s called anaphylaxis and it’s when your body’s immune system overreacts. It can be quite frightening. The triggers include foods such as peanuts, wasp and bee venom and even some drugs, like penicillin.

The most deadly, however, are wasp and bee stings. They caused more than 70 per cent of all deaths from anaphylaxis in the UK between 1992 and 2001.

That’s more than the fatalities caused by food allergies.

In fact, nearly one in 100 people in the UK is at risk of an allergy and a small minority of those may be at risk of anaphylaxis. But they may not even know it.

join the resistance

That’s why we’re campaigning to highlight the issue and the steps that people at risk can take to stay safe.

Perhaps you, or someone you know, has had a severe reaction to a wasp or bee sting? Or maybe you’re anxious after experiencing moderate symptoms from being stung?

If that’s the case, you can still enjoy the great outdoors – whether at work or play – thanks to a choice of treatment options. These range from sting avoidance strategies all the way to venom immunotherapy. Just speak to your GP to find out more.

So next time you bump into a wasp or bee – there’s no need to panic.

About bee and wasp allergy:

In the UK there are several species of stinging wasp and hornet although only one species of bee, the honey bee, commonly stings. Wasps and bees are the most likely to sting; despite their size, hornet stings are rare and bumble bees hardly ever sting.

Some people have a sensitivity that means a sting by a wasp or a bee could trigger a full allergy to the specific venom of that species. It’s the particular proteins within the venom that are to blame.

The first time you’re stung by a wasp or bee, the reaction might not be bad enough to warn that you may have a problem in the future.

If you consequently develop an allergy to wasp or bee venom, however, a future sting could lead to a serious allergic reaction called anaphylaxis.

Symptoms of anaphylaxis include:

  • Intense pain from the sting
  • Feeling unwell, dizzy and sensing what’s  been described as “an impending doom”
  • Rapidly spreading rash
  • Sudden drop in blood pressure
  • Wheezing, tight chest
  • Physical collapse

What can we do about it?

If you’re concerned you might be allergic to wasp or bee venom, there are a number of options.

1. Avoidance

Reducing the chances of wasps and bees bothering you reduces the chances of being stung. Try to avoid the things that attract them such as sugary food and drink, bright clothing and some perfumes. And if they come too close for comfort – don’t flap!

2. Auto-injector pens

For people with a known allergy, auto-injector pens are a possible solution. They can be kept on hand so that in the event of a sting, the victim can quickly inject themselves with adrenaline to stop the reaction, as well as immediately calling for an ambulance.

3. Go to your GP

Explain to your doctor why you are worried and any symptoms you may have experienced as a result of a wasp or bee sting. They will be able to offer advice and, if appropriate, refer you to a specialist treatment centre for tests and possible venom immunotherapy treatment.

4. Venom immunotherapy treatment (VIT)

For 95 per cent of people, VIT offers a permanent cure to bee or wasp venom allergies. Starting with a tiny injection of the right venom, regular treatment increases in dose until the patient’s body has become immune to its effect. VIT is available on the NHS. Speak to your GP to find out more.

What are the treatment options?

Tackling the cause: venom immunotherapy treatment (VIT)

For something that’s a bit of a mouthful to say, it’s a simple concept.

First, you speak to your GP. If they think that you are at risk they will refer you to an allergy consultant.

The next step is to have a skin-prick test or a blood test to discover what kind of venom you are allergic to: wasp, bee or both? Each wasp species has its own venom so it’s important to find out which of those it is, or whether it’s bee venom that is the problem. It is possible to be allergic to all, though most people only react to one.

If you are assessed as suitable for venom immunotherapy treatment, you will start with a tiny injection of the right purified venom. Regular treatment increases in dose until the patient’s body has become immune to its effect. The injections are by specialist medical professionals at one of the dedicated units around the UK.

It can take three to five years to complete a course with about 23 injections in the first 12 months. The approach is: “Start low, go slow.”


It’s available for a range of people who have had:

  • a moderate reaction to a sting
  • a severe reaction and are at risk of being stung again
  • anxiety about future stings
  • raised levels of a protein called tryptase in their blood.


Tackling the symptoms: emergency response

There are alternatives to venom immunotherapy treatment which, rather than treat the cause of anaphylactic shock help to tackle the symptoms instead.

One of best known examples is the adrenaline auto-injector pen (AAI). Adrenaline is injected into the thigh as the first line treatment of symptoms of an anaphylactic reaction, whilst awaiting medical assistance from 999 ambulance paramedics. Adrenaline maintains blood pressure and oxygen levels, while easing inflammation and other problems.


As well as an AAI, emergency sting kits might also contain:

  • antihistamines: high dose anti-allergy pills (oral)
  • corticosteroid: anti-inflammatory steroids (inhaled)
  • bronchodilator: airway relaxants (inhaled)


Emergency kits are available for a range of people who have had:

  • a history of severe reactions with respiratory difficulty and/or hypotension
  • less severe reactions that have nevertheless been wide-ranging
  • asthma or mild food reactions that make them high risk

However, to be effective an emergency kit has to be used quickly, correctly and safely. The treatment isn’t guaranteed, so an ambulance must always be called after using an adrenaline auto-injector pen.

How much do you know?

How much do you know about wasps, bees and venom allergies?

Check out our fact-file to test your knowledge.

  • Only female wasps and bees sting
  • Despite their reputation, hornets are only aggressive near their nest
  • There is just one species of honey bee in the UK – but several species of wasps
  • Bumble bees rarely sting
  • More people are allergic to wasps than bees (NICE)
  • 1% of the population is estimated to be allergic to wasps and bees (NICE)
  • In the UK, venom anaphylaxis is the second most frequent cause of anaphylaxis outside medical settings (NICE)
  • 52% of people who have a bad reaction to a wasp or bee sting develop a serious allergy (NICE)
  • 71% of anaphylaxis deaths in the UK between 1992 and 2001 were from wasp and bee stings (NICE)

Your stories

David in his new protective beekeeper suit‘I was stung in the head and collapsed before passing out completely’: despite calls for him to retire, beekeeper David was not deterred by his experience of anaphylaxis

For most beekeepers, the thought of getting a serious allergic reaction to a bee sting is far from the focus of their attention. Experienced beekeepers will tell you that honey bees are generally docile and seldom sting unless provoked. But for keen beekeeper, David Parker, a spate of bee stings left his wife dialing 999 after his second anaphylactic reaction.

“I started beekeeping in the summer of 2013. All was going well and I had set up two honey bee colonies in my garden,” said David, who runs a financial consultancy service and lives in Woking, Surrey with his wife.

“I had been stung many times before, as any beekeeper does, with no or little reaction. The first time I had a bad reaction I was just in my garden, not even tending to my bees when I got stung in the head and chest in quick succession. I had a bad reaction, passed out, but just carried on as I was by myself and did not realise what had just happened.”

“The second time the same thing happened and I was stung twice; I started to feel incredibly dizzy and faint, before I collapsed and passed out completely. I’d had an anaphylactic shock and had been unconscious for around 10 minutes. My wife found me and called the emergency services, by the time I had woken up the ambulance had arrived. After about fifteen minutes my pulse was back to normal so thankfully there was no need for me to go to hospital.”

“That’s it, give up beekeeping”, said David’s wife once the ambulance had left. Despite calls for him to retire, David was determined not to let the experience of anaphylaxis ruin his passion for beekeeping and started investigating treatment options.

“I had done a lot of research and found that the Royal Surrey County Hospital provided a desensitization course available on the NHS. I went to my GP, armed with this information, but they said they’d never heard of it before – I had to show them the website before they believed me!”

1% of the UK population is at risk of a sting that can provoke an allergic reaction and a small minority of these people will go on to develop the potentially fatal allergic symptoms of anaphylaxis¹, but like David, most are unaware they are at risk.

“What’s concerning is that even my local GP, in a large practice was unaware that treatment for people like me is a possibility and is so effective it is even NICE approved.

“I started my course in September 2014 and am over half way through. They build you up with incremental doses up to 12 weeks then move to monthly injections over the course of 36 months.

“I have been lucky enough to make friends with a fellow bee keeper whilst undergoing the treatment – we do lunch first then injections!

“The treatment course is the easy part – the next challenge is of course convincing the wife that I will be safe! I have managed to find a bee suit specially designed for people like me, who need to avoid getting stung, and always carry an Epipen in my pocket in case of emergencies. My GP has been good and understands that I need four Epipen’s – one for each car, one for the house and one for my bee suit.

“The good news is that, although I haven’t yet completed it, the course does seem to be working, I have had a few stings with no real effect. In fact with the injections, after two hours you could not even tell I had been stung.

“As the course has proven so successful already I am back keeping bees, and with the purchase of a very good bee suit (I have found one called a BeePro specifically designed for people who are bee sting sensitive) I am back up to 10 or so colonies. I am thoroughly looking forward to this season and building up again to enjoy beekeeping.”


  1. NHS: http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/Anaphylaxis/Pages/Causes.aspx [last accessed, April 2016]


Simon BeekeepingFor most beekeepers, the thought of getting a serious allergic reaction to a bee sting is far from the focus of their attention. Experienced beekeepers will tell you that honey bees are generally docile and seldom sting unless provoked. But for keen beekeeper Simon Cavill (55) a seemingly innocuous sting led to a potentially life-threatening allergic reaction.

“I started beekeeping 13 years ago and had been stung plenty of times before with no real side effects,” said Simon, who lives with his wife and two children near Basingstoke, Hampshire.

“Then one day, I was beekeeping as usual and was stung by a honey bee. This wasn’t that much of a shock as it comes as part of the territory. However, unlike a normal localized reaction, I started to come out in hives and a rash all over my body.”

“I started to feel quite unwell and due to the reaction having spread all over my body, I took a double dose of antihistamine and went to bed thinking that I’d be better in the morning.”

Unbeknownst to Simon, he had actually suffered a severe and potentially fatal anaphylactic reaction. 1% of the UK population is at risk of a sting that can provoke the potentially life-threatening allergic symptoms of anaphylaxis, but like Simon, most are unaware they are at risk.1

“I woke up the next morning and didn’t feel at all well, so went straight to my GP. When I arrived she diagnosed my symptoms as anaphylaxis and told me that I was lucky to have woken up that morning. It was quite a shock when she told me that, I had no idea it was that serious.” He added.

Fortunately for Simon, he was referred to the Royal Surrey County Hospital in Guildford where he started undergoing immunisation treatment. Venom immunotherapy treatment is a three to five year treatment course in which people like Simon are given injections of gradually increasing doses of the relevant purified bee or wasp venom to build their resistance. It starts with very low doses and has to be administered in specialist clinics by medical professionals – there are about 60 NHS specialist allergy centers around the UK.

Simon is due to complete his treatment at the end of the year and it’s helped him to feel much more confident whilst beekeeping.

“I’ve been stung a few times recently with no ill effect, but I do still try and avoid getting stung wherever possible! I introduced my now 17 year old daughter to beekeeping when she was 7 and she loves it, in fact she’s represented England in several national beekeeper competitions – she’s very aware of the risk around anaphylaxis now which makes me feel a lot better.” He said.

Now an expert beekeeper and Trustee for the British Beekeeper’s Association, Simon founded Bee Good, an award-winning natural skincare brand.

“As a keen beekeeper I had a lot of honey and excess beeswax around, so I decided to put it to good use. We founded Bee Good in 2008 and it’s been a great success winning numerous awards and is now sold through several national retailers.” Said Simon.



It can take a single sting for a victim to become allergic to wasp and bee venom. But for forestry manager David Simpkin it was an attack by a whole swarm which lit the fuse to his life-threatening condition.

David was far from help at a quarry in remote countryside in Wales when a colleague accidentally walked through a wasps’ nest, kicking a cloud of angry insects into the air. They locked on to David and started violently stinging him, injecting venom all over his body.

“I thought at first I had dragged my hand through brambles,” recalls David (47). “But I looked down and my hand was red hot with wasps. I just took off, swatting them, and running as fast as I could to put as much distance as possible between me and them. It was only after running 200 metres that they began to leave me alone.

“It never once crossed my mind that I was in any difficulty until I actually started to change shape – then you realise something nasty is happening. My body swelled up, I felt faint, my chest tightened, I got tunnel vision.

“There’s also a feeling that something very bad has happened and there’s nothing you can do. You can’t hear anything, you get short of breath and you think, ‘This is not getting any better’. It’s a sort of feeling deep in the pit of your stomach.”

David’s colleagues supported him to the site’s first aid room before dashing him to the nearest cottage hospital where he was injected with life-saving adrenaline and antihistamines.

“Afterwards I had to sit in the dark,” explained David, a former rugby player from Nottinghamshire. “It hurt to look at the light; it was like the worst hangover I have ever had. I could not eat or sleep and even though the wasp attack was quite short and dramatic, I had to be off work.”

The terrifying episode was in the early 1990s, but the consequences have stayed with David for years. He became one of the estimated 1 per cent of adults in the UK for whom a wasp or bee sting can provoke in their body the potentially fatal allergic symptoms of anaphylaxis.

For David it’s a major risk for his job in which he spends much of his time outdoors. In isolated rural locations he is not only more likely to encounter a wasp but is also further away from emergency help if the worst happens.

Since the first attack he has carried two adrenaline auto-injector pens with him wherever he goes, ready to fight off anaphylaxis while an ambulance is called. His pen helped save his life when he was stung again in 2012 as he brushed a wasp off his jacket, mistaking it for a leaf.

“The back of my neck stood up and straight away I got tunnel vision, shortness of breath,” said David, a married father of one girl. “It makes you feel quite cautious. It’s hard to go out as a family because you have to be aware of where wasps are. You end up wondering, for instance, whether you’re sitting too close to a litter bin outside an ice cream shop. But there’s only so much you can do.”

What David didn’t know then is that there is an immunotherapy treatment provided by the NHS. Regular doses of purified venom are administered over three to five years until the body becomes immune to its effect. The injections are by specialist medical professionals at about 60 specialist centers around the UK.

He only found out about it after undergoing surgery and discovering he reacted to some of the drugs involved. His GP sent him for further tests which eventually revealed the specific wasp venom to which he was allergic – and he began the treatment in September 2014.

“The first five to six weeks I went there it did make me feel quite unwell for the rest of the day,” said David. “But since I got to the stage where the dose can go higher, I can go in and have the injection and an hour later I can go. It’s proved the point that it’s worth doing.

“Now I know that if I get stung I can sit down, put some ice on it, take some antihistamines and it will be okay. It gives you the security that on a day to day basis you will not get into too much trouble. It’s reassurance for me and my family.

“But you have to be committed. It’s one of the things they make very clear to you: you must complete the course or you’ll have to start all over again. It’s worth doing it but step out of it you’re wasting the time and effort when someone else could be benefitting.

“The way that I view it is that I have got the time to take the decision. I will not be overwhelmed by anything. It’s a safety zone and there’s no need to panic.”

Bee and wasp stings were the major cause of deaths from anaphylaxis in the UK between 1992 and 2001, causing 70 per cent of fatalities. That’s more than caused by food allergies. According to guidance from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), nearly one in 100 people in the UK is at risk, but many may not even know it.

To raise awareness of venom anaphylaxis, ALK – a pharmaceutical company which supplies some of the products used in the treatment of venom allergy – has launched the Bee Resistant campaign.

Lisa Clarke, allergy and clinical immunology clinical nurse specialist at Nottingham University Hospital where David is undergoing venom immunotherapy treatment, said: “We have quite a number of patients in Nottingham having venom immunotherapy. Many of our bee venom patients are beekeepers and became sensitive due to repeated stings. Wasp venom patients, like David, often work out doors and their lives are severely affected by the anxiety of suffering another life threatening reaction to a sting.

“Once people have started venom immunotherapy treatment we can reassure them that they are far less likely to have a severe reaction if stung again, which we find settles their anxiety and reassures them that they can enjoy the summer like everybody else.

“Venom anaphylaxis is serious and can be life threatening. I would advise anyone who has had a bad reaction to a bee or wasp sting to visit their GP for medical advice and ask to be referred to an allergy clinic.”



Passionate beekeeper Ian Gourlay has known several colleagues who had to give up their much-loved hobby over the years, driven out by the potentially life-threatening effects of being allergic to bee stings.

Ian (65), who lives in Oxford, has been keeping bees for about 30 years but discovered he too had developed the allergy in the early 1990s after being stung on the shin by a bee which had crawled up his trousers.

Ian, a forestry researcher at Oxford University, said: “Although I had always had reactions to insect bites, until then I had been keeping bees without having any major reaction. But about half an hour after the sting I started sweating, I felt nauseous and nearly passed out. I had bloodshot traces up and down my shin.

“When you feel the pressure on your chest and breathing problems, it’s really quite alarming. As a beekeeper I knew about it and I was lucky it did not progress any further. I staggered to my boss’s room and he got someone to take me to hospital.”

Instead of hanging up his beekeeper’s hat, however, Ian was advised to undertake bee venom immunotherapy treatment at his local Churchill Hospital. It’s a process in which initially tiny injections of purified venom increase in dose until the body is immune.

The injections are by specialist medical professionals at about 60 dedicated centres around the UK and it’s available on the NHS, through GPs. For most, it takes between three and five years to develop immunity, starting with weekly injections which over time decrease to less than monthly.

Although Ian’s injections went on for three years, it took only 12 months before he was able to return safely to tending his dozen hives without the threat of dangerous anaphylaxis – the body’s sometimes fatal overreaction which can be triggered by anything from peanuts to penicillin, as well as wasp and bee stings.

With full immunity, he has never needed to use an emergency adrenalin auto-injector pen, which all people who have suffered an anaphylaxis attack should carry with them.

Thanks to Ian’s immunotherapy treatment, a sting now just brings up an itchy spot which soon disappears – a world away from the frightening shortness of breath and dramatic swelling he used to suffer.

“It’s been a lifesaver,” said Ian. “Certainly in my case it was amazing. The reaction is far less than the first time.

“It would have made a big difference to my life if I had not been able to continue bee keeping. It would have been a major hobby I would have lost. I sell the honey and I find bees fascinating – the lifecycle, building the nest, the plants they feed on, everything.”

Ian would also have been unable to continue helping look after the hives at a mental health therapy garden near Witney where he volunteers.

Most people are only allergic to either bee stings or a particular strain of wasp venom. But Ian was unlucky enough to prove allergic to both – which he found out in the early 2000s after a wasp crawled into a T-shirt on his washing line and stung him as he put it on.

The same symptoms appeared, so he began immunotherapy treatment again, this time for wasp venom, which also resulted in the same reassuring immunity he has for bee stings.

For such tiny creatures, bee stings – and those of their less popular cousin, the wasp – were the major cause of deaths from anaphylaxis in the UK between 1992 and 2001, causing 70 per cent of fatalities. That’s more than caused by food allergies.

According to guidance from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), nearly one in 100 people in the UK is at risk, but many may not even know it.

To raise awareness of venom anaphylaxis, ALK – a pharmaceutical company which supplies some of the products used in the treatment of venom allergy – has launched the Bee Resistant campaign.

Dr Stephen Lombardelli, ALK medical director, said: “For Ian, having venom immunotherapy treatment was crucial for him to be able to continue with beekeeping. And as he is also allergic to wasps, he needed additional treatment as the venom is different to that of bees.

“Other people, as well as beekeepers, can also benefit from venom immunotherapy. Anyone of any age can develop allergy to bee or wasp venom at any time. The first time someone is stung by a wasp of bee, the reaction might not be that bad to warn them that they may have a problem in the future. If they consequently develop an allergy to wasp or bee venom, however, a future sting could lead to a serious anaphylactic reaction.”

“I would advise anyone who has experienced a severe reaction to visit their GP for medical advice.”


Marian-KearneyRemembering the allergic reaction that spread through her body, 61-year-old Marian Kearney recalls: “I was terrified like I have never been before. I thought I was going to die.”

Marian, a former teacher, is one of the estimated 1 per cent of adults in the UK who are allergic to wasp and bee venom. But when she was stung while working in the garden of her home in Kendal, Cumbria, in late September 2014, she initially thought little of it. She had no idea she was allergic.

“It was a sunny late September afternoon when my life suddenly changed,” she explained. “I was stung but I still had a lot of gardening to do, so within a minute or two when I quickly experienced dramatic changes to my body.

“I ran into the house, swallowed an antihistamine tablet and placed a wet flannel on the site of the sting. I started by feeling woozy, as if I was going to faint, and then was aware of my body swelling. I quickly stumbled back into the house where I looked up my symptoms online to learn I needed to dial 999.”

Ominously she was instructed by the operator to open the front door and lie down ready for the ambulance. The situation was worsening fast: her throat swelled up, constraining her breathing, and a red rash covered her body which also swelled, including her face where her eyes were almost squeezed shut.

Everything, including the terrifying sense of doom that began to wash over Marian as she lay on the floor, was signaling a classic case of wasp venom anaphylaxis – the potentially fatal overreaction by the body to the sting.

Marian was rescued by the arrival of the paramedics who swiftly spotted the medical signs and injected her with adrenaline and steroids to fight the reaction and save her life.

She was taken to hospital where her condition was judged serious enough to keep her in overnight for observation. She was only allowed home at lunchtime – nearly 24 hours after the wasp stung her in the garden.

The episode was over but Marian is still dealing with the ongoing effects of her allergy. It was likely to have been primed 12 years ago by the last sting she suffered; setting up her body to react violently to the particular proteins contained in the venom.

One of the immediate consequences was to put a cloud over Marian’s planned trip to Nigeria to volunteer with a charity for three months. Would she be able to go knowing that a simple sting could put her in another life-threatening situation without the NHS to call on?

She said: “Happily following a discussion with the charity’s medical officer, permission was granted providing that those colleagues I was working with were informed of my condition and taught how to use an adrenaline auto-injector pen.”

The auto-injector pen, an emergency injector containing adrenaline to fight the effects of anaphylaxis, is now a constant companion to Marian, who has taught her friends and family how to use it.

She explained: “I carry two auto-injector pens with me at all times: winter included, when I am not even expecting wasps to be around – no excuses, ever. I do find this a bit of a bind, meaning that whatever I do, I need to carry a bag, even when just popping to see a friend, or taking a walk.”

Other consequences Marian describes include travel insurance for worldwide cover rocketing up from £56 a year to quotes as high as £892.

“This healthy woman was described by the insurers as having a life threatening condition,” she said. “It’s true, I do have – but seeing it spelt out like that felt pretty scary.”

Marian, who joined the Anaphylaxis Campaign supporting people with severe allergies like hers, admits: “For the first few months after the sting I worried all the time about being stung. But time has settled those fears and I am now confident that if it ever happens my auto-injector pens and the NHS will save me.

“It definitely has been something that’s changed my life. I think about it at all times. But I am determined not to let it worry me. But if ever I get stung again, I ring 999 and need to say only one word: anaphylaxis.”

To raise awareness of venom anaphylaxis, ALK – a pharmaceutical company which supplies some of the products used in the treatment of venom allergy – has launched the Bee Resistant campaign.

Dr Stephen Lombardelli, ALK medical director, said: “Venom anaphylaxis is a rare but very serious and potentially life threatening condition that can affect anyone, regardless of age. Anyone experiencing a severe allergic reaction should not delay calling 999, and anyone who has experienced a severe reaction in the past should consult their GP for advice.”

Bee in the know about Anaphylaxis

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