What The Health?! Were bees really living in a woman's eye? Canadian experts doubtful

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A woman in Taiwan garnered international headlines after her doctor claimed to have found four “sweat bees” inside one of her eyes.

The woman, identified in the media as both Ms. Ho and Ms. He, was apparently pulling weeds around her relatives’ graves when a gust of wind came up and she felt something get into her eye, according to the BBC.

Thinking it was dust, the woman rinsed her eye out with water before things got worse. By the time she got home, her eye had become severely swollen and painful.

She went to Fooyin University Hospital in southern Taiwan, where ophthalmologist Hong Chi Ting was shocked by what he found.

“She couldn't completely close her eyes,” Hong told BBC. “I looked into the gap with a microscope and saw something black that looked like an insect leg. I grabbed the leg and very slowly took one out, then I saw another one, and another and another. They were still intact and all alive.”

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He also told reporters that the woman, who was in her 20s, was fortunate not to have any lasting effects.

This small sweat bee busily forages away in the orange flowers.

“She was wearing contact lenses so she didn't dare to rub her eyes in case she broke the lens,” Hong said. “If she did she could have induced the bees to produce venom... she could have gone blind.”

Hong claimed that those three-millimetre-long creatures were sweat bees, members of the bee family Halictidae that get their common name from their attraction to human sweat. They sometimes land on people to drink their perspiration, which contains water and salts. (When speaking to reporters, Hong said the bees were being sent off for analysis.)

According to the non-profit Bee Informed Partnership, these small bees can have bright, dark or metallic colouring, most commonly green. They exist all over the world and nest in various habitats, including sidewalk cracks, soil, and rotting wood. Important pollinators, they’re nonaggressive, but if they do sting, it’s usually not painful.

The Taiwanese woman made a full recovery.

But did the media get it right? And do Canadians need to worry about their own eyeballs being sucked on by bees?

One of Canada’s top bee experts doesn’t think so, on either front.

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Cory S. Sheffield, curator of invertebrate zoology at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum in Regina, says he’s dubious about what type of bee apparently entered the woman’s eye, for a few reasons.

For starters, one of the main photos that has been circulating of four small bees around an eye is not that of the woman but rather of Swiss entomologist Hans Bänziger, who published a paper on stingless bees that will drink human tears in a 2009 issue of the Journal of the Kansas Entomological Society.

The photo widely circulated with the sweat bees story was actually from a 2009 study.

Visiting 10 different sites in Thailand, Bänziger allowed more than 260 bees to sip from his eyes, finding that the “relatively gentle visitors” mostly landed on the lower eyelashes and fed on tears for anywhere from 30 seconds to two and a half minutes, often alone but occasionally in groups of five to seven.

Less typically, they also drank sweat. Bänziger concluded that although it’s often assumed the bees seek salt, they’re more likely in search of proteins.

“I have not actually seen a photo of the woman, her eyes, or more importantly the bees that were in them,” Sheffield told Yahoo Canada. “Media coverage that I have seen has shown photos of honey bees, larger sweat bees, and a range of other things that would be very large to even fit in the eyes of a person. So it is hard to validate those claims.”

Sheffield says the bees in question could have been stingless bees (Apidae, Meliponinae), not sweat bees.

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“Stingless bees are found in tropical areas of the world and can live in large colonies,” Sheffield says. “Though they do not sting, they do bite, and unlike the sweat bees, stingless bees will aggressively defend their nests when disturbed. I have had them get into my hair and bite my hair and my scalp—an interesting sensation.

“Some of my Australian colleagues have commented on the aggressive nest defense and indicated that they will get in your eyes while on the attack,” he adds, noting that if in fact the woman was pulling weeds, she could have well stirred up a nest.

If the small bees that were found alive in the woman’s eyes were drinking tears or defending their nest by biting around her eyes, she may have wiped her eyes, causing the bees to become stuck under her eyelids, Sheffield explains. (He points out too that it’s more accurate to say bees were found alive in the woman’s eyes, rather than actually living in them.)

The woman’s experience is not one that should raise alarm among Canadians, even if they’re travelling abroad, Sheffield says.

“I think the chances of getting a bug under your eye is much greater, and maybe more painful, when running, riding a bike, sticking your head out the window of a moving vehicle, and the like,” he says. “The almost universal comment of not messing around the nests of bees and wasps is also good advice.”

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