It isn't true, as some science-fiction conceit would have you believe . . . that bugs have secret arboreal laboratories in which bee scientists are developing more and more potent anti-people poisons, all designed to rid the earth of heedless humans.
It may seem that way, especially if each sting seems more painful than the one you remember five or a dozen years ago, and even more so, if you're on of the million or more Americans allergic to stings.
But whatever the bee scientists may be up to, the people scientists have been busy. Within the past couple of years, there has been a major break-through in the protection of people particularly sensitive to the bee, hornet, wasp or yellow-jacket venom.
This, of course, is the development of therapies using pure venom obtained from the insects themselves. This method is replacing the use of extracts from massive numbers of insects all ground up with their venom in the -- usually vain -- hope that more is better.
Stings are, at best, a pain. When the insect stings, injecting her (only females do the stinging) venom under the skin, the result is for most people a sore and itchy swelling at the spot.
For others, there can be a big sore and itchy swelling at the spot. Or worse.
"People who are allergic basically react more violently with extremely large local swelling," says allergist Dr. Richard Rosenthal. "Or they may have a systemic reaction, one that occurs at a site distant from the site of the sting itself."
Rosenthal, Fairfax Hospital chief of allergy and assistant professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University, says that if you are allergic to the venom of one or more of the stinging insects, "You can get hives -- those round raised spots that itch; or you can have areas of swelling, such as the lips, the mouth or the tongue; or generalized itching that often starts on the palms or the soles."
More dangerously, he says, there can be "respiratory distress -- difficulty in breathing because the bronchi close up and do not permit air to pass through, and shock. Shock is characterized primarily by fainting. When a patient is in shock, the blood pressure drops and when patients die (from reactions to stings) it is usually from shock, or the respiratory problem, or a combination of both."
People who have had one severe reaction to a sting are more likely to have another, says Rosenthal, and "it may be the same or worse" the next time. In addition, a person who reacts to one kind of sting may have, or develop, a sensitivity to another, espectially in the wasp-hornet yellow jacket genus. They are cousins, while bees are off in another line.
The bee is the only one Rosenthal describes as "the Kamikaze" -- after the World War II suicide pilots. The honey bee leaves her stinger (and the venom sac) in her victim. She then flies off to die. Left alone, the venom sac will work its way more deeply into the victim, exacerbating the already painful or dangerous sting.
Great care should be taken in removing the stinger and sac, scraping them off if possible, rather than pulling them out. Squeezing may inject still more venom.
The other stinging bugs -- wasps, hornets and yellow jackets -- "have nothing to lose" by stinging. They can sting and sting again, over and over.
The new pure-venom extract has been approved by the FDA for both diagnosing persons sensitive to venom and for de-sensitizing them. Research at Johns Hopkins, for example, has indicated an almost 100 percent success in immunizing patients known to be allergic to venom.
Current research is centering around the usefulness of immunizing children -- some of whom seem to outgrow the allergy -- and in detecting through a blood test potential sensitivity. (Currently, a tiny amount of the venom, thousands of times less than in an actual sting, is injected under the skin. Sensitive persons will react even to this minute amount.)
Parents interested in having their children participate in the testing should call the Hopkins program: 301-323-2200, Ext. 458.
Meanwhile, here are some precautions for the sting-sensitives:
Keep a stinging-insect kit handy. Available by prescription, the kit contains adrenalin (epinephrin is another word for the same thing). A new one features a spring-loaded syringe which works simply by being pressed against the thigh.
Don't go barefoot in the grass.
Don't wear floppy clothes. Don't wear dark colors.
Don't wear perfumes, perfumed sun lotions or cosmetics.
Keep insecticide and insect repellent handy.
If you are being buzzed by one of those fighter-pilots, don't panic. Don't try to brush it off. Simply walk away slowly. You'll save your dignity -- even, perhaps, your life.