Beware of bees: New report into stings and bites in Australia

By Karl Gruber 18 January 2017
Reading Time: 2 Minutes Print this page
Bees and wasps were responsible for a third of all hospitalisations due to stings and bites during 2000-2013, according to a new report.

BETWEEN THE YEAR 2000 and 2013, nearly 42,000 Australians were hospitalised due to sting and bites from different venomous animals, according to a new report out this week.

Topping the list of culprits were bees and wasps, which were responsible for more than one-third of all hospitalisations (33 per cent), mostly due to allergic reactions. Spiders and snakes took up second and third place, being responsible for 30 per cent and 15 per cent of hospitalisations.

During the time period covered in the report – which published this week in the Internal Medicine Journal – snakes were responsible for 27 deaths, and allergic reactions from the venom of bees killed 25, wasps two, ants two and ticks three people. The infamous box jellyfish was recorded causing three deaths and spiders, despite their notoriety, were not responsible for any deaths.

“More than half of deaths happened at home, and almost two-thirds (64 per cent) occurred not in the isolated areas we might expect, but rather, in major cities and inner-regional areas where healthcare is readily accessible,” said Dr Ronelle Welton, a pharmacologist and public health specialist at the University of Melbourne, who led the new study.

Understanding allergy risk

A lack of awareness of the importance and potential risk of allergic reactions may be to blame, said Ronelle, as the data show that most of the people who died from allergic reactions to bees or other insects remained at their homes, whereas the majority of people bitten by a snake took themselves to hospital.

“Perhaps it’s because bees are so inoffensive that most people don’t really fear them in the same way they fear snakes,” she said.

“Without having a previous history of allergy, you might get bitten and although nothing happens the first time, you can sometimes develop an allergic sensitivity – though this is rare,” she added.

Overall, the results point toward a need to better understand why deaths occurred despite the proximity to hospitals, and this is a focus of further inquiry, said Ronelle.

“Now we are beginning to see the overall picture there is a need for further inquiry about why this occurs and how can communities be supported. For example, in South Australia, there are a lot more stings and anaphylaxis from bees. In Queensland there are more snake bites. In Tasmania, their biggest issue is jumper ant anaphylaxis. So there is the potential to tailor education and awareness for each state or territory,” she said.

But don’t be too alarmed. Despite these numbers, Ronelle pointed out that a person is still more likely to die from an encounter with a horse or a dog

“Since 2000, 74 people have died from being thrown or trampled by a horse. Twenty-six people have died from a shark attack and 23 from altercations with dogs. Crocodiles have been responsible for 19 deaths. But compared to 4,820 drowning deaths and 974 deaths from burns in the same period, these figures are still remarkably low,” she said.