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Bees revealed as Australia’s most dangerous venomous creature

“Before it affects you, you have a vague knowledge of the allergy,” said Carly, adding she previously associated bee sting allergies with children. “But you don’t know how common it is, or how late in life it can appear.”

Australia is home to some of the world’s deadliest creatures. But, among venomous plants and animals, bee stings result in the most hospitalisations and deaths.

A report from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare released on Wednesday found, of 3520 hospitalisations following contact with venomous animals and plants in 2017-18, more than a quarter (927) related to bee stings.

There were 19 deaths from venomous animals and plants during that year: 12 from bee and wasp stings and seven from snakes bites.

Professor James Harrison, the director of the institute’s national injury surveillance unit, said although the year’s death toll was slightly higher than data from other years, the rate of hospitalisations from stings and bites from venomous plants and animals has remained relatively consistent.

“The fact that things like bees are part of the picture is something a lot of people wouldn’t expect,” he said, adding people should be “wary of the potential for an allergic reaction”.

Bees are responsible for the highest number of venomous hospitalisations and deaths in Australia.

Bees are responsible for the highest number of venomous hospitalisations and deaths in Australia. Credit:Michael Probst

A 2013 study of anaphylaxis fatalities in Australia found, unlike food allergies, reactions to bee stings were not increasing.

However, despite immunotherapy for bee sting allergies being available for about four decades, Canberra clinical immunology and allergy specialist Dr Raymond Mullins, who co-authored the study, said too few receive appropriate treatment.

Immunotherapy works by introducing small amounts of the allergen to the body over a period of time, eventually reducing the body’s response when exposed.

Researchers found, between 1997 and 2013, half of the people who died from bee stings were known to be allergic.

“Our conclusions seven years ago were that [bee sting reactions] were poorly treated short-term and long-term,” said Dr Mullins. “Short-term we need to have adrenaline available in regional hospitals and long-term we need to refer more people to immunotherapy.”

A local reaction to a bee sting is characterised by swelling and pain. However, an allergic reaction may have other symptoms including hives, itchiness, difficulty breathing, nausea and dizziness.

Dr Mullins said it was possible the rate of death from bee sting allergy was under-reported in Australia, as most occur in middle-aged men who have other conditions, such as heart disease.

“It’s almost always someone in a rural, remote area,” said Allergy & Anaphylaxis Australia CEO Maria Said.

“Their EpiPen was left in the car, they have to run to the car to get it and by the time they get there they have collapsed, and then they lose their life.”

Redback spiders were responsible for half of all spider hospitalisations in 2017-2018.

Redback spiders were responsible for half of all spider hospitalisations in 2017-2018. Credit:Kitty Hill

Wednesday’s report also found about one in five (666) hospitalisations in 2017-18 were to treat spider bites, nearly half of which were redback spiders (283). Funnel-web spider bites accounted for only 25 hospitalisations.

Australian Reptile Park reptiles and spider keeper Jake Meney said most bites are preventable, with people bitten while working in their gardens without protective clothing such as gloves or outside at night without enclosed shoes.

“A lot of people also tend to get bitten while they are attempting to catch or kill the animal, particularly snakes, where about 80 per cent of bites happen when someone is trying to do that.”

Forty-five per cent of spider bites were listed as “unidentified”, with people unable to name the spider that had bitten them.

People in Sydney need to be able to tell the difference between a funnel web and a redback spider.

People in Sydney need to be able to tell the difference between a funnel web and a redback spider. Credit:Australian Reptile Park

“To the average person, most spiders look more or less the same, but it does complicate things once you go to hospital,” Mr Meney said, adding Sydneysiders should only need to be able to tell the difference between a funnel-web and a redback.

There were 608 hospitalisations following snake bites Australia-wide, including 217 brown snake bites in 2017-18.

Men were hospitalised following a venomous sting or bite at nearly twice the rate as women. Hospitalisation was most common in men aged 45 to 64.

“Some of it might be showing off in front of their mates or trying to look macho,” Mr Meney said.

Relative to population, the most hospitalisations occurred in the Northern Territory (31 cases per 100,000 people), followed by Tasmania and South Australia. The lowest rates were seen in the ACT (9 cases per 100,000 people), NSW and Victoria (both recording 11 cases per 100,000 people).

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