The personal, handwritten, journal of the surveyor started a little differently this time. It simply stated, “I almost died today.” The surveyor was swarmed and stung about a dozen times in the head and left ear before, minutes later, passing out and going into anaphylactic shock. He eventually awakened from a violent sternum rub and the look of a concerned paramedic holding a used epinephrine injection pen (Epipen). His blood pressure was dangerously low, and his breathing was shallow and labored. He sat there for a few moments confused, covered in vomit, and wet from incontinence. From there things were a blur as he was rushed in an ambulance to the emergency room.
He remembers having foggy memories of being strapped down, his chest being shaved and taking breathing treatments as he looked backwards upon the interstate with cars pulled off to the side as the sirens screamed. Once in the emergency room, various antihistamines were administered to his IV as his feet continued to twitch aggressively from the amount of adrenaline pumping through his veins helping to keep him alive. Earlier, the chief medical director arrived on scene and told the paramedic crew that it was a close one and thanked them for their quick service and response time. The surveyor has been stung dozens, if not hundreds of times prior with no issues—until now. The culprit was a Honeybee and a bunch of her angry friends.
The known benefits of solo surveying are fewer employees and lower health insurance premiums, but that is about it. The lack of mentorship and safety of the crew are critical to the perpetuation of a struggling profession. In 2018, a very talented solo surveyor passed away in Western Australia after being stung once while on a job site. He administered his own Epipen and called for help, but it was too little and too late. The contractor plead guilty and was fined heavily for failing to provide a safe working environment in which a contracted employee was not exposed to hazards. If you have to work alone, and we all do, it is important to prepare a policy for solo work, promote proper communication while on site and properly plan for emergencies and administration of first aid.
According to the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were 788 deaths between 2011-2021 from hornet, wasp, and bee stings. This averaged 72 per year with 84% of the deaths being males. Even if you have never been allergic before, the chances of building an allergic reaction increase every time you get stung. It is quite common for beekeepers (apiarists) to be allergic. According to the Mayo clinic, “People who have a severe allergic reaction to a bee sting have a 25% to 65% chance of anaphylaxis the next time they’re stung” .
The chance that a bee or wasp has stung a field surveyor is very high. The chance that a field surveyor may build an allergy to bee or wasp venom is increased each time. The chance that a field surveyor is prepared for an allergic reaction is slim to none. An action plan needs to be implemented for every field crew and especially for every solo surveyor. Clear lines of communication between the field and office is key and it sure wouldn’t be a bad idea to carry some liquid Benadryl and an Epipen in your first aid kit as well. Minutes may matter in an emergency and there is no excuse for risking the life of a field surveyor for the sole benefit of increased revenue.
The full story can be heard on the NSPS Surveyor Says Podcast with Executive Director Tim Burch.
Joseph D. Fenicle, MS, PS is the Program Director and Professor at the University of Akron for its award-winning Surveying/Mapping program. Immediately prior, he was the Chief Surveyor at the Office of the Fulton County Engineer in Wauseon , Ohio for 15 years. He also owns Angular By Nature, LLC, a company specializing in Continuing Education for Surveyors and Engineers across the Nation. Joseph has a MS in Engineering Technology with a Surveying Engineering Technology Concentration from the University of Maine, a BS in Surveying/Mapping from the University of Akron and an AAS in GIS/GPS from Hocking College. He obtained his FAA license in 2019 and is currently working on his CfedS—Certified Federal Surveyor Certification.
The Buzz About Bees
According to the United States Geological Survey (USGS), there are over 20,000 species of bees worldwide. Of those known species there are only seven different varieties of Honeybees with the European honeybee, often called the Western Honeybee, (Apis mellifera) being the most common. The Western Honeybee lives on every continent, except Antarctica, and are known for their pollenating and honey bearing capabilities. Unlike the 4000 native species of bees in the United States, the Western Honeybee, however, is not native. The Western Honeybee was brought over on one of three sailing vessels from the Virginia Company of London in what is now Jamestown, Virginia.
There was once a native honeybee in the United States, although now long extinct. A paleontologist-entomologist found the specimen squashed in a piece of 14-million-year-old shale in Nevada. The oldest Honeybee fossil, surrounded by amber, dates to 100 million years ago as found in Myanmar. Not all Western Honeybees are the same though and are categorized by geographic races (i.e., Italian, Russian and African). The Italian Honeybee race is known as the most docile and was brought to the United States in 1859, while the African Honeybee is the most aggressive and was first discovered in Texas in 1990. It is interesting, for not being native, that 16 different States use the Western Honeybee as their State insect. This, oddly enough, does not include Nevada (Vivid Dancer Damselfly) or Virginia (Eastern Tiger Swallowtail).
The Western Honeybee, for the most part, is docile if not disturbed. The colony is comprised of three different residents. The male bees, or drones, have no purpose other than hanging out in the hive and using their reproductive abilities. There are only a few hundred of them in the hive and they are fat and lazy, have no stinger and get kicked out when the temperatures drop. There is one queen in each hive, and she does nothing but reproduce repeatedly. The female worker bees (up to 80,000 in a hive) do all the work, foraging for nectar and pollen and the very important role of protecting the colony. The females can release pheromones when under distress and then die upon the release of their barbed stinger, venom sack and part of their abdomen. This is what was still hanging out of the surveyor’s left ear and head.
Commonly known as the world’s most beneficial insect, the Honeybee, and its byproducts, have been around and used for millennia. Beeswax from a Honeybee was recently traced to about 9,000 years, as it was used to waterproof ancient pottery. More impressive, however is the radiocarbon dating of a piece of beeswax used as a binding agent for an ancient tool dating to 35,410 +/- 360 BP or roughly 40,000 years Before the Present (BP). Today the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that the Western Honeybee “…pollinate $15 billion worth of crops in the United States each year, including more than 130 types of fruits, nuts, and vegetables. Honeybees also produce honey, worth about $3.2 million in 2017” .
The taxonomy of the Honeybee follows the typical format of species, genus, family, order, class, phylum, kingdom, and domain. The scientific order Hymenoptera covers bees, wasps, and, surprisingly, ants—all sharing the same trait of a narrow “waist.” This is the second largest order of insects with over 150,000 known species and thousands more discovered annually. The only order larger is Coleoptera, or the beetles. The Honeybee family is Apidae, and the genus is Apis. The modified female organ (ovipositor) of these insects no longer lays eggs but has been transformed into a stinger. This explains why only a female bee can sting; however not all stinging creatures are created equal. The Western Honeybee has a completely different stinger, not to mention a completely different venom structure than a Wasp, Hornet or Paper Wasp (all three in the species Vespula).
As stated, the Western Honeybee dies when it stings, whereas vespides can sting repeatedly. The stinger of the Western Honeybee resembles a barbed, hollow needle. Once it goes in it is not coming out. Unfortunately for the Western Honeybee, once the stinger is used, since it is an organ, it comes along with part of the abdomen and the venom sack and kills the bee within minutes. The remaining stinger and venom sack then literally pumps the venom into the victim (surveyor). The venom of the Western Honeybee is called apitoxin and known to cause considerable pain while destroying the fatty lining of the cell structure causing the victim to release histamines.
If the victim gets stung enough this extreme release of histamines causes low blood pressure due to blood vessel dilation which results in anaphylaxis or anaphylactic shock. The surveyor, when found unconscious, had multiple stingers with fully drained venom sacks still hanging out of his ear and head. Once one bee stings, an attack pheromone is released sending in the other troops to end their lives as well, all for the longevity of the hive. Once the pheromone is released, the bees, like mosquitos, will swarm the head as it releases the highest amount of carbon dioxide. The effects of a sting can be reduced if the stinger is removed quickly with something like a credit card, but not squeezed with tweezers further injecting more venom. In contrast, Wasps and Hornets have a stinger that is smooth and used repeatedly, along with a different form of venom and side effects.
The venom cocktail of both species is very complicated and still not completely understood. It is known that a Wasp delivers a much more painful sting and will do so just for fun sometimes. The Bald Face Hornet is one of the fiercest and has built in facial recognition and has been known to pass by the innocent only to seek out and sting the offender. The amount of venom released with a barbed stinger and venom sack is anywhere from 4-25 times that of a single smooth stinger, however once multiplied the release of venom can quickly become equal.
1 d’Errico, F. et al. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 109, 13214–13219 (2012)
Signs and Symptoms of a Honeybee Sting
Monitor and Schedule with Primary Care Physician
- Instant, sharp burning pain at the sting site
- A red welt at the sting area
- Slight swelling around the sting area
Schedule Appointment with Allergist
- Extreme redness
- Swelling at the site of the sting that gradually enlarges over the next day or two
Call 911 immediately and administer Epipen
- Skin reactions, including hives and itching and flushed or pale skin
- Difficulty breathing
- Swelling of the throat and tongue
- A weak, rapid pulse
- Nausea, vomiting or diarrhea
- Dizziness or fainting
- Loss of consciousness