11 April 2019

Creating a buzz out of nothing

Our Director of Research, Michael Bowen, looks behind an alarming BBC news story about a Taiwanese woman who had four sweat bees living inside her eye.

Yesterday’s most read news story on the BBC website was about “bees living in a woman’s eye”. Horrifying? Perhaps, or perhaps not.

Light-hearted interest pieces have long been a feature of various news outlets. However, we currently see rather poor reporting of clinical and science news. This can be confusing or even worrying for people reading these articles. Getting insects in our eyes is something that most of us will experience. While uncomfortable, it is not usually harmful. Small insects can usually be removed safely at home.

There are instances of people being stung on the eye by a bee or a wasp, though fortunately, the data available suggest that this is relatively uncommon. This article fails to point this out explicitly, though they do quote the ophthalmologist who removed the bees as saying that this was the first incident of bees in the eye that he had seen in Taiwan. 

The ophthalmologist is also quoted as saying that the bees could have been induced to “…produce venom…” if the woman had rubbed her eye, and that this could have led to blindness. A quick search of the internet turned up a couple of more helpful papers on eyes and bee stings. Hassan Razmjoo and colleagues report that stings to the surface of the eye, and the cornea in particular are rare. The case that they highlight did result in some loss of vision (180/200) but this was due to corneal scarring resulting from the sting penetrating the surface of the eye, rather than the toxicity of the venom in the sting. 

"Getting insects in our eyes is something that most of us will experience. While uncomfortable, it is not usually harmful."

Choi and Cho report on a case in which the venom in a bee sting caused optic neuritis, but in this case the patient recovered fully, following treatment with intravenous methylprednisolone followed by oral prednisolone. Choi and Cho suggest that prompt treatment with corticosteroids is effective in the treatment of ocular bee stings.

A final, readily sourced article initially seems to suggest that stings to the eye are a regular occurrence, in the US at least. However, the authors conclude in a much more balanced way, that such events are relatively rare, and offer some sensible advice on management.

A little further online research (minutes worth) shows that while Sweat Bees can and do sting, they are not terribly aggressive compared to other types of bee, and generally small, and do not deliver especially toxic venom. A few people have been found to display unusually adverse reactions specifically to Sweat Bee stings, while not reacting strongly to stings from other bees.

So reading around this piece even lightly suggests that we don’t need to worry about bees setting up hives in our eyes. We should treat any foreign object in our eyes with care, and seek assistance if it is not easily removed. A sting to the eye clearly warrants attention from an optometrist or ophthalmologist, and prompt attention is advisable.

Better reporting around such cases would be welcome too.

Related further reading

A glance at what’s happening in the world of technology.

Eye health issues that are making the news.

Jane Veys MCOptom on reducing the tears and fears of our patients