Don’t get me wrong—bees are wonderful insects, even though most species are not native here in Hawaii. When the first Hawaiians arrived on the shores of these stunning isles, only the yellow-faced bees buzzed around. Honey bees were introduced in the 1850s, and have since become indispensable, wedging their way into the Hawaiian economy and filling the shoes of native pollinators that have become scarce. They’re economically and ecologically vital, not just here in Hawaii, but throughout the US—according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, these busy bugs pollinate 80% of our flowering crops, and are thus essential for the production of 1/3 of our food. Worldwide, the economic contribution of pollination alone has been valued at over $200 billion.
But for more than 2 million Americans, bees are a dangerous threat. Somewhere between 1% and 7% of human beings are allergic to insect venoms, with their symptoms ranging from mild overreactions to full-blown anaphylactic shock. For those with bee allergies, even the slightest sting can lead to a fight for life. Even more troubling is that, in half of all fatal sting allergy cases, victims had no previous major reactions to venom. Nearly 100 Americans die every year from bee stings, and many more experience severe reactions that require immediate medical treatment.
Allergies are defined as ‘hypersensitive immune responses’—or, in colloquial terms, odd moments when our immune systems flip out. Anaphylaxis is the whole-body manifestation of an allergy, which can range from something as minor as hives to sharp drops in blood pressure and even cardiac arrest. You don’t have an allergic reaction the first time you come in contact with an allergen; instead, like with viruses or other potential invaders, your body takes an immunological picture so it can remember the allergen later.