Is A Bee Sting Acidic Or Alkaline, And What About Wasp Stings?

The motive for asking this question is often related to treating a bee or wasp sting.

Many are familiar with the old adage: ‘bee stings are acidic so treat them with baking soda (an alkali), but wasp stings are alkali so treat them with vinegar (an acid)'.

But can baking soda really neutralize a bee sting, and will splashing vinegar on a wasp sting actually help?

Let's investigate!

What is the pH of bee sting and wasp sting venom?

Acidity / alkalinity is measured and referred to by what is known as the pH scale (pH stands for ‘power of Hydrogen). The scale goes from 0 (highly acidic – e.g. battery acid) to 14 (highly alkaline – e.g. liquid drain cleaner), with pH 7 being neutral.

To give you some idea of the pH values of some well known substanceshere’s a list with a comparison of where bee and wasp venom sit within the pH scale:

Acidic0Battery Acid
1
2Lemon juice, vinegar
3
4Tomato juice, beerBee venom:
4.5 - 5.5
5
6Saliva, milk, urineWasp venom:
6.8 - 6.9
Neutral7Pure water, blood
8Baking soda, eggs
9Toothpaste, handsoap
10
11
12
13Bleach, oven cleaner
Alkaline14Drain cleaner, caustic soda

As can be seen from the table above, bee sting venom has a pH between 4.5 and 5.5 (1) – so it is acidic, although not highly acidic (and only slightly more acidic than milk and human saliva).

Wasp venom is close to neutral – pH 6.8 – so it is not so alkali as many people may think!

What does this mean if we want to answer the question about using baking soda for bee stings, and vinegar for wasp stings as mentioned above?  There is a fair amount of advice around the web supporting the above remedies

However, the reality is that bee stings are only mildly acidic, and wasp stings are more or less neutral, and both are injected into the skin not onto the skin.

It is difficult to imagine how a topical application of baking soda or vinegar could neutralise the venom (which is neither especially acidic or alkaline in the first place) inside the skin, and a number of sources remain skeptical of efficacy. Furthermore, it is peptides and enzymes that cause pain by damaging cells and neurons (see 'why do bee stings hurt?'), thus sending pain signals to the brain, so the argument that dealing with pain by 'neutralizing' the venom seems overly simplistic.

That said, I have read contributions on forums from members of the public, suggesting that some relief of wasp sting reactions was gained from vinegar.  If vinegar really did help, then why this would be the case is not clear. 

However immediate vinegar application at the site of box jellyfish stings is practiced at various coastal locations around the world because vinegar deactivates the nematocysts2 - but not for stings from all jellyfish (it would be important to be sure of species).  Vinegar (acetic acid) is also used for some coral stings and dermatitis caused by some species of marine sponge3.

Of course, wasp stings are different to the stings of jelly fish, but unless I was experiencing a very severe reaction, I would personally be willing to try vinegar on wasp stings - and for that matter, on bee stings too, although I currently have no further information on this.

Conventional treatments for dealing with bee and wasp stings

Bee stings can be painful and can lead to other problems such as inflammation, or allergy (sometimes severe allergy), but there are some things that you could do to alleviate the symptoms caused by bee stings.

  • Ice to reduce swelling and inflammation
    The ice will also reduce blood flow 
    away from the sting, so reducing the flow of venom to the rest of the body. As a precaution do not put the ice directly onto the skin, which may lead to ice burns, but wrap the ice in something such as a cloth before placing that on the skin.

  • Antihistamine spray or cream / ointment
    This will also help reduce inflammation and hopefully prevent any local allergic reaction to the sting. Check whether antihistamines are appropriate for you before taking.

  • A local anaesthetic spray or cream
    This could also help to relieve the pain from the sting.

  • Remove the stinger if from a honey bee
    Honey bee stingers can get left behind in the skin following a stinging incident.  Before treating, scrape away the stinger with a blunt ruler or similar blunt instrument.


Summary

So, to answer the question at the top of the page – bee stings are mildly acidic (and wasp stings are close to neutral).

In terms of answering the underlying question that is behind the original question (which is: ‘Is baking soda good for bee stings?’), the mildly acidic pH of bee stings suggests that applying baking soda is unlikely to have any significant benefit. However, there are things you can do to reduce the symptoms that you might experience when stung by a bee.

References

(1) Ali, Mahmoud. (2012). Studies on Bee Venom and Its Medical Uses. International Journal of Advancements in Research & Technology. 1. 69-83. 

(2)Johnston CS, Gaas CA. Vinegar: medicinal uses and antiglycemic effect. MedGenMed. 2006;8(2):61. Published 2006 May 30.

(3) Bansal, Mansi & Budhiraja, Umesh & Bansal, Himanshu. (2020). Contemporary pursuits of vinegar from scullery to dermatology. International Journal of Research in Dermatology. 6. 10.18203/issn.2455-4529.IntJResDermatol20203539. 

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