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David Sovka: B.C. honeybees versus Anaphylaxis Dave

One of the most frightening aspects of anaphylaxis, apart from all the dying, is that you don’t know you are doomed by a certain allergen — until you do

Part 2, in which the author considers the pros and cons of collecting honey from backyard bees, versus a frightening death from anaphylactic shock. Part 1 looked at the joys and perils of backyard beekeeping.

This is my third emergency ambulance ride to the hospital in just about as many years. While it’s super fun to drive so fast on city streets, the view from the back stretcher is not great, obscured as it is by professional life-savers wrestling a big epinephrin-filled needle into my thigh. Then, because I’m still not breathing so well, they wrestle another needle into the other thigh. It hurts, as do the failed spots where they couldn’t find the vein for an IV line (“A swing and a miss!” called the paramedic as he jabbed me in the wrist, then the other wrist), but there is also a curious calm that comes with such complete helplessness. I am fairly copacetic with what happens here, but that doesn’t mean I want to die now, what with that new Star Wars series about to land on Disney+.

This ride to the hospital emergency room and scary, existential threat is brought to you by a two-centimetre-long bug — until very recently one of 80,000 honeybees that live in my backyard (now a crunchy mess on the side of my head where it stung me into anaphylactic shock).

Congratulations, you’re dying!

Anaphylaxis usually develops suddenly and gets worse very quickly, like politics in Alberta. Typical symptoms include:

• feeling faint or dizzy, but not in the good way

• difficulty breathing

• sweaty, clammy skin

• confusion and anxiety, only worse than usual

• collapse, loss of consciousness and death, also not in the good way

But wait! There’s more! Other common symptoms are hives (itchy, raised rash); nausea; weaponized diarrhea; and Michael Bay-level itchy genitals. I swear I am not making any of this up. Frankly, it’s a wonder we have any doctors left in this province.

At this gross point, I think it’s important that we move on to a discussion of what, scientifically speaking, anaphylaxis is. Also, you should probably stop wondering exactly what “Michael Bay-level itchy genitals” means. You’ll know it when you scratch it.

What is anaphylaxis?

Anaphylaxis is what happens when the body’s immune system overreacts to a trigger like shellfish, or in my case, people who leave the car alarm on while parked on a moving ferry. The most common triggers include:

• food (nuts, fruits, dairies)

• insect stings (bees, wasps, hornets, demogorgons)

• general anaesthetic (also specific anaesthetic, like Jägermeister)

• latex (a kind of rubber found in kitchen gloves and kitchen condoms)

• American television news

Of course, in some cases there is no obvious trigger. This is known as “idiopathic anaphylaxis” because, let’s face it, doctors really hate saying, “I dunno.” It makes them feel like they wasted all those years memorizing things in medical school.

One of the most frightening aspects of anaphylaxis, apart from all the dying, is that you don’t know you are doomed by one of these triggers, or “allergens,” right up until the point when you do. What I mean is, there is a stunningly wide range of small, everyday things that could kill you to death without you knowing ahead of time. I don’t mean plutonium, I mean peanuts. Not Burmese pythons, but honeybees. Garden strawberries, for goodness sake.

If you’re still reading (hello there!) and you are severely allergic to something, that heady mix of fear and irritation currently swirling around your mind grapes is entirely rational and appropriate. None of this is your fault, just your consequence.

Let me digress for a moment to assure you that all of the information in this feature is factually correct. While I, personally, am a known idiot and cannot be trusted to safely handle any medical information whatsoever, my disdain for crabby letters to the editor means all of this is triple-checked for accuracy, and to make sure I deleted all of the references to Michael Bay/genitals.

Okay, onto nasty death by allergy: during anaphylaxis, your body loses your mind and tries to kill both of them. When exposed to an allergen to which you are mysteriously and unfairly allergic, your immune system releases a whole bunch of dangerous chemicals, some of them possibly leftover Halloween candy from powerful Mexican drug cartels.

These chemicals can cause your body to go into shock, making your blood pressure drop rapidly and your airways narrow, which blocks breathing. An overwhelming majority of doctors surveyed believe this condition to be Bad, or Very Bad Indeed.

What to do, what to do?

Which brings us to what you should do if you or someone you love has entered the great State of Anaphylaxis (same state motto as South Carolina: Dum spiro spero, or “While I breathe, I hope”). While it’s best to just avoid all of the more empty-headed southern states, there is an established medical procedure for anaphylaxis. Unfortunately, it involves needles.

Let me put a pause on the funny-ha-ha so there is no confusion when I say, as clearly as I can: seek emergency medical help if you or someone you’re with has a severe allergic reaction. Do not wait to see if the symptoms go away, just call 911 while we still have a health care system. Also, please don’t show this paragraph to my wife, who will furrow her pretty brow because when anaphylaxis visited our house, I resisted the above advice. Strenuously resisted, while my sweaty, swollen throat closed and I lost all feeling in my face.

My wife: Are you okay?!?

Me: Mrffgungk. Lrrsssnk. FARN!

My wife: I’m calling 911 right now.

Me: Gurk.

Without any generalizing or naughty stereotyping, since the anaphylaxis incident that landed me in the emergency room, many women-type people have shared-without-being-asked that this is a common reaction amongst many men-type people. That is to say, one half of humanity is prone to a more laissez-faire attitude towards certain death than the other half of humanity, which explains why 80% of people who die from a bee or wasp sting are men-people.

It is a scientific fact that one of the genders often cannot be trusted to do what is in its own best interest, such as in a medical emergency, or when it is time to vote in federal elections. But, to be fair, it is also a scientific fact that the other gender has NO IDEA HOW TO PROPERLY LOAD THE DISH WASHER. I mean, it’s just basic physics combined with efficient spatial… wait, sorry, I’m getting distracted. Let’s get back to anaphylaxis (but to be clear: LOAD FROM THE BACK, FORWARDS).

Can I eat live bees?

All this talk of bees is probably making you hungry. The Government of Canada estimates food allergies in western countries affect as many as 6% of young children, and 3 to 4% of adults. They mean real food allergy, not food dislike or food intolerance such as lactose intolerance, which makes you fart but does not involve the immune system going full berserker mode. Sure, it’s not fun to spend Saturday night in the bathroom because somebody put too much cheese on the nachos, but you’re not going to die. It just smells that way. Also, you can’t claim food intolerance to get out of unpleasant activities like eating quinoa, or helping a friend move a piano upstairs.

Culture wars be damned, I’m sympathetic toward anyone – especially parents of little kids – with real food allergies. However, being deathly allergic to bees is very different from being deathly allergic to, say, shellfish. While currently there is no cure for food allergies, you can usually steer clear of the prawns. They don’t fly around the backyard and get mad at you for having a picnic.

What’s up, doc?

The short-term solution to anaphylaxis is easy!

• First, stab your loved one in the thigh with an adrenaline auto-injector (better known as an EpiPen) if the person happens to have one lying around and you happen to know how to correctly use it.

• Second, go back in time and make sure there is an EpiPen lying around, and make sure you read the instructions.

• Third, okay, look I know there was a lot of good TV on, but go back in time again and really, I mean it, learn how to use that EpiPen.

• Fourth, call 911 for an ambulance immediately (even if the person starts to feel better; he’s probably lying) and be clear you think the person has anaphylaxis and is also a dirty liar.

• Fifth, remove any trigger, if possible. For example, carefully remove any stinger stuck in the skin, and make sure to turn off your car alarm while on the ferry.

• While you wait for the ambulance, lie the person down and raise their legs. Consider using a black Sharpie to draw on a comical moustache, because laughter is the best medicine, second only to real medicine.

• Finally, give another EpiPen injection after five minutes if the symptoms do not improve.

The long-term solution is immunotherapy.


A possibly better name for “immunotherapy” would be “allergy shots,” and a better name for “allergy shots” would be, “FIVE YEARS OF EXPENSIVE NEEDLES!” This process involves two things: gradually giving the patient increasing doses of the allergen to which he is allergic; and $500 cash to buy specially-refined bee venom because it is not covered by B.C. health care. To be clear: I have to PAY FIVE HUNDRED DOLLARS to a venom factory even though I live in Canada and until now thought I had a pretty good relationship with Adrian Dix.

The other downside, according to my immunologist, is that with every shot in the arm there is a 3-12% chance of me going into anaphylaxis again. In addition to being smart and drop-dead gorgeous, she has quite a few impressive medical school certificates on the office wall, so I am inclined to believe her, even though she also said something about no alcohol during the treatment period, obviously some kind of hilarious doctor joke, which I will ignore.

Communities throughout Canada celebrate May 29 as “Day of the Honey Bee” in honour of New Zealand beekeeper and mountaineer Sir Edmund Hilary, who ascended the summit of Mount Everest on that day in 1953.

It’s the time of the year when local bees will be buzzing, pollinating crops and making honey. Feel free to celebrate their special day like me: inside the house with all the lights turned off, hiding under the bed, wrapped in my old beekeeper’s suit.

No more emergency ambulance rides, please.

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