biology question #2230



Roy Donaldson, a 47 year old male from Toronto asks on September 3, 2004,

Q:

Is it true that in total a bee's venom is acidic while a wasp's venom is basic? If so, would it make sense to treat a bee sting topically with baking soda, and a wasp sting say with lemon juice or vinegar? Your answer can ignore allergic reactions.

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the answer

John Jones answered on September 7, 2004, A:

[Editor: Note that this is really two questions: `Is a bee's venom acidic?' and `Does putting vinegar on a sting relieve the pain?'. Readers report experiencing relief both from putting vinegar on wasp and on bee stings, so the answer to the second question seems to be `Yes'. It's tempting to conclude that the reason vinegar helps is that, as an acid, it neutralises an alkaline sting. But this conclusion would be wrong -- as the answer below shows, neither bee nor wasp stings are alkaline.] After considerable research, it appears this idea is English folklore and not scientifically founded. Here is a website, from Mother Earth News (2010), that cites a number of home remedies for stings. More authoritative, the Oxford Museum of Natural History. On the other hand, here is a website from a UK pest control company that says wasp stings aren't alkaline after all. More authoritatively, Keele University Abroretum says the same thing. Many sites repeat the "bee sting acid, treat with alkali, wasp sting alkaline, treat with acid" idea, including some by apiculturists, MD's and an English GCSE exam paper. However, my conclusion is that:

  • this idea is English folklore; I think it propagates, despite being false, because people think, "Oh yes, vinegar would neutralise an alkaline sting, since it's an acid, so my knowledge of chemistry confirms the story."
  • the pH of bee venom is 5.0-5.5, but the acidity of the venom is not what makes the sting hurt, so adding alkali won't kill the pain (unlike ant stings, which hurt because they're formic acid).
  • the pH of wasp venom is close to neutral
  • bees and wasps do have both acid glands and alkaline glands from which they secrete venom. The acid glands are larger.

Many people (below) have written in reporting the good effects of vinegar on stings. It does seem that putting vinegar on a wasp sting reduces the pain. But scientifically we can't conclude that it neutralises an alkali in the venom (and, if we've just been stung, we probably don't care). It may be that vinegar denatures some of the venom's proteins. It would be interesting to know what vinegar does to a bee sting but to know this someone would have to do some experiments. [EDITOR: In the meantime, if you get stung, you can do an easy experiment yourself. Try putting vinegar on the sting and see if it relieves the pain. Many people report to us that it does. We'd be interested if you try this and it does not reduce the pain. Also, it would be brave, but someone who gets two stings should try vinegar on one and not on the other and let us know what happens.] Illustration by Raymond Nakamura.

 

Christina Mayall, British Columbia High School Teacher answered on June 19, 2005, A:

Well, I think that this is all very interesting. I was just stung by a wasp about two hours ago. It started to get raised and white with a little red dot in the centre and then it became red for about a 3 cm radius around the sting. I remembered that I had heard that acid was effective, so I put vinegar on a cloth and wrapped the sting with it. Instantly the pain lessened and within two hours my skin appeared normal. Last time I was stung I did not do this and my leg hurt for around three days. My daughter thinks that it is the power of the mind ( an equally interesting proposition). But let's just say that my own personal experiment confirmed that, for whatever reason, vinegar seemed to be an effective antidote to a wasp sting.

I tried vinegar first and it relieved the pain immediately. Then I tried putting on baking soda to see what that would do, and it started hurting again. When I put the vinegar on it again, once again it felt better. I put a handkerchief soaked in vinegar on the sting and the pain and redness were completely gone within an hour.

David Glaser, Surrey, England answered on March 28, 2006, A:

John asks: "What acid does a bee sting contain?"

Answer: Bee venom is slightly acidic and contains formic acid - but the major finding is that it is not the acidity of bee venom that causes the pain and the swelling, but rather lots of other nasty ingredients. If the theory is that the sting stops hurting once the PH hits neutral it is hard to believe that sloshing an indeterminate amount of vinegar or baking soda on a wound would have such a precise effect. Also, the venom is injected under the skin so any application of acid or alkali is unlikely to penetrate to even get near the venom. It may well stop hurting whatever you apply to the wound - some people swear that meat tenderizer is the best salve for both. Check the Insect Stings website for more information. Bee venom contains up to 65 chemical components, many of which are protein enzymes.

 

Sarah, university student, Nottingham, England answered on June 13, 2006, A:

My partner got stung by something while out today. The stinger was left behind after he swatted it off, but he said it was definitely a wasp that stung him. As the shops were shut by this time, it was not possible to get him any antihistamines, so we nipped into a nearby pub to raid their first aid box. (if in doubt - the pub always has the answer!). They gave him antiseptic wipes, which helped a little, but not much. When we got home, he splashed a little vinegar on to part of the swelling, and it was immediately obvious which areas had been touched by the vinegar - the 'vinegared' bits instantly looked less red and the swelling was reduced. After two small applications of vinegar, he now claims that the pain is gone, and the stung area looks much less red and swollen. While the empirical certainly definitely suggests that vinegar should be of no benefit to wasp stings, my fiancé has definitely found that it helped him.

Terry McSpadden answered on August 7, 2006, A:

Thanks for the good advice people! I was stung by two wasps after sticking my finger into a hidden nest and thought at first, that I had run a shard of metal into my finger since it was such a sharp pain. However, a quick look at your comments on the Internet convinced me that I should try the vinegar solution since the pain was now starting to spread up my working hand and I was somewhat concerned that I would be unable to use the computer which is a key part of my work. Within seconds of immersing my finger in the vinegar, the pain was stopped, and after 20 minutes I removed my finger from the vinegar solution and the pain has not returned. There has been no swelling in the finger, a secondary benefit.

Angela Vickery from the UK answered on August 14, 2008, A:
Aloe Vera also works on stings, my 5 yr old got stung the other day and I did not have any vinegar handy but I did have some Aloe Vera and that immediatly stopped the pain and redness & swelling went down. My husband was stung on the lip and vinegar stopped the pain he thought I was mad putting it on the sting but was surprised that it worked. Dont care if its in the mind or not it works.
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