Skip to Content »

Beekeeping, bee venom and anaphylactic shock

  • February 4th, 2013

A lovely picture of 14 year old Eva Wilson on her unicycle illustrates the Stuff heading "Shock at teen's death from [bee] sting".

As the owner until recently of hundreds of beehives, and as a beekeeper (of one hive) in Mt Victoria, I find such stories of greater interest than most, though parents all over the country will emphathise with Eva's family.

I've comforted myself when working on hives and stung (the worst night over 20 times when moving hives) with the theory that bee venom stimulates production of immunoglobulin G (IgG) which might reduce or fend off arthritis.

Nevertheless I've wondered when New Zealand's dedicated nannies would notice the opportunity to put bee stings into the category of peanut allergy and swimming pools and other common risks where precaution requirements are mounting to restrict ordinary conduct. Some precautionary principle responses may kill many more than they save. The added costs and risks of building and operating swimming pools or offering learn to swim training may be the main contributors to more than 30% of young New Zealanders being unable to swim.

About 40 people per year are killed by bee stings in the US, and one in Australia. For us it may be one every three or four years, on a population basis. So the risk of death may be greater than the risk of death from dog attack, or peanut allergy. If the population become as alarmed about bees as they have about dogs there could be a sad new expansion of cotton wool wrapping, to deprive more kids of confidence outdoors.

I'm intrigued by one aspect of the story. Eva's father is referred to by Stuff as "Fraser Wilson". A Frazer Wilson of Takaka is recorded on the National Beekeepers Association website as the President of the Nelson Branch. If he is Eva's father I would have thought it would be a significant part of the story, to have a beekeeper's daughter killed by a bee. Perhaps there is no connection.

But there is now suspicion that beekeepers' children are at heightened risk of anaphylactic shock from bee stings. Internet searching will throw up some advice that beekeepers should wash their work clothes separately from the family clothes.  The theory is that othewise the washing passes on continual low level exposure to venom. Too late for my kids though we did not have the hives when they were young, but it could be slightly reassuring for the rest of us to know if Eva does come from a beekeeping family.

And very interesting for the immunologists studying allergies.  Could it be that peanut allergy and the many other allergies that seem to be proliferating are being triggered by unremitting low level exposure for babies and children to the allergens in their parents. Should we parents lay off some of our favourite foods (e.g.wheat products) and drinks (e.g.dairy) to give our kids (and ourselves) at least occasional rests from exposures that would in past times have been seasonal. Should we be reinstating seasonality?


  • Maria Polgase Clement
  • February 4th, 2013
  • 7:41 pm

Your comments have me asking whether previously accepted theory in immunology has changed over the years. I have been a lifelong sufferer of allergies, and was treated as a child with courses of desensitisation injections – low level doses of the relevant allergen – to considerable effect. My pollen allergy was at its least severe during the years I worked in the nursery industry, handling plants daily. I knew Eva and yes, her parents are apiarists, but the theory that low-level exposure to an individual’s particular allergen (through a parent’s clothing for example)would INCREASE sensitivity contradicts both what I was taught and my own experience. I had heard, however, on an American documentary that some people with venom allergies can react increasingly severely to subsequent stings; their body’s tolerance can decrease (or its reactivity increase, rendering previously effective levels of medication ineffective). Regarding “There is increased suspicion…”: By whom? I think it would be very unwise and insensitive for anyone to infer that Eva’s distraught and highly responsible family might somehow have contributed to a situation of increased risk. The facts are that bee stings are common and that a certain percentage of people are severely allergic to them. The rest, in this case, is speculation.
Point for discussion: Does the fact that I am a vehicle owner increase the odds of my child being killed by a passing car?

  • Stephen
  • February 5th, 2013
  • 7:36 am

I agree Maria that it is puzzling, for the reason you give. From what I’ve seen on the web it is not obvious that allergy specialists know as much as we might expect them to know in this area. It seems possible that age at exposure might make the difference. Sensitising exposure in infancy or even in the womb but not later, may create a higher risk of of anaphylaxis. That would be consistent with the work the Malaghan Institute has been doing on asthma, investigating the well established correlation between infant exposure to the organisms in pond mud and reduced risk of asthma (commonly expressed as the increased risk to kids coming from overly clean environments). Nothing I’ve seen on the web suggests that we know the mechanism, though the higher risk for children of beekeeping families is treated as well established. So the advice on separate laundry and other precautions might be completely irrelevant, but it is useful for families to know of the statistical connection.

None of this means that Eva’s family should feel responsible. The die may have been cast long before anyone even knew of the suspicion. We all accept risks of the unknown when we take our kids to swim, or waterski, or snowboard or we drink coffee or grapefruit juice or alcohol or eat peanuts and so on forever. But we should know of increased risk. In the interests of all beekeepers with children, the statistical association should be highlighted. There is never a better time than when there is an actual illustration. In my experience most parents who lose children to accidents are anxious that others should know of the hazards that have matured.


Death by dog attack in New Zealand is exceptionally low. I am quite confident that you can count the number of people killed by dog attack in New Zealand on one hand.

Leave your comments:

* Required fields. Your e-mail address will not be published on this site

You can use the following HTML tags:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>