Do Honey Bees Sting? The Truth Behind Their Defensive Behavior

Honey bees are fascinating creatures that are important for our ecosystem, primarily due to their vital role as pollinators. Despite their social nature and crucial role in agricultural crop production, many people are concerned about the possibility of being stung by these insects.

In general, honey bees are not aggressive and will only sting to defend themselves or their colonies. While they do have stingers, they typically avoid using them unless they feel threatened. This is because honey bees can only sting once, after which they die.

If you encounter honey bees, it is essential to remain calm and avoid provoking them. By keeping a safe distance from their nests and not swatting at them, you can significantly reduce the chance of being stung by these helpful insects.

Honey Bees and Their Stingers

Anatomy of a Honey Bee Sting

The stinger of a honey bee is a complex structure consisting of:

  • A sharp, barbed tip
  • A venom sac
  • Muscles for injecting venom

The barbed stinger is unique to worker bees, as it is a modified version of the ovipositor, which is used for laying eggs. The barbed sting enables the worker bee to effectively penetrate the skin and release venom.

Bee Stinger Function

The primary function of the stinger in worker bees is defense. Examples of this include:

  • Defending the colony from predators
  • Stinging threats to deter them

Comparison of bee stingers among species (Africanized bees, European honey bees):

Species Aggressiveness Stinger Barbs
Africanized honey bees High Yes
European honey bees Low Yes

It is important to note that bee stingers are different for various types of bees, with some having smoother stingers, allowing them to sting multiple times. However, honey bees with their barbed stinger die after using it, as the stinger gets lodged into the skin of their target and tears away from the bee’s body when it attempts to fly away. This leads to the death of the bee. Despite this sacrifice, the venom sac continues to pump venom into the target even after the bee has died.

The honey bee stinger’s barbed design and defensive function make it an effective but costly tool for worker bees in the maintenance and defense of their colony.

Understanding Bee Stings

Why Honey Bees Sting

Honey bees typically sting as a defense mechanism when they perceive a threat to their hive or themselves. This is a last resort for honey bees, as stinging can result in their death due to the loss of their stinger.

For example:

  • Approaching a hive too closely
  • Disturbing a foraging bee
  • Accidentally stepping on or handling a bee

Effects of a Honey Bee’s Sting

When a honey bee stings, it releases venom into the skin, which causes pain, redness, and swelling. Some people may experience more severe reactions, such as itching and hives. To treat a honey bee sting, it’s recommended to:

  1. Remove the stinger as soon as possible
  2. Apply ice or a cold pack to reduce swelling
    3.Level of pain
Mild Moderate Severe
Redness Itching Hives
Swelling Localized pain Difficulty breathing

Allergic Reactions to Bee Stings

Some individuals may have an allergic reaction to a honey bee sting, which can be life-threatening in severe cases. Symptoms of an allergic reaction include:

  • Hives
  • Nausea
  • Lightheadedness
  • Stomach cramps
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Low blood pressure
  • Swelling in areas other than the sting site

Anaphylaxis is the most severe form of an allergic reaction, which may be fatal if not treated quickly. Signs of anaphylaxis include:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Swelling of the face, lips, or tongue
  • Rapid or weak pulse
  • Shock

If you or someone you know experiences any of these symptoms after a bee sting, seek immediate medical attention.

Types of Honey Bees and Their Stinging Behavior

Worker Bees

Worker bees are female bees that make up the majority of a honey bee colony. Their primary role is to collect pollen and nectar, care for the larvae, and defend the hive. When threatened, worker bees release an alarm pheromone to alert other bees to potential danger. Workers have stingers and can sting once, but they die shortly after stinging as their stingers are barbed and become detached from their body.

Queen Bees

The queen bee is the single fertile female in the colony responsible for laying eggs and producing more bees. She has a stinger but rarely stings humans, as her primary purpose is to sting other rival queen bees during the colony’s swarming process. In general, queen bees focus on reproduction and do not pose a threat.

Drone Bees

Drone bees are male bees within the colony, and their main function is to mate with the queen bee. Drones are unique as they do not have stingers. As a result, they pose no threat when it comes to stinging.

Africanized Honey Bees

Africanized honey bees, also known as “killer bees”, are a hybrid species of honey bees that tend to be more aggressive than other types of honey bees. They aggressively defend their hive and are more likely to sting humans. However, their stings are no more venomous than those of other honey bees.

Comparison Table

Type of Bee Stinging Behavior Threat to Humans
Worker Bees Can sting once, die after stinging Low
Queen Bees Rarely stings humans Very Low
Drone Bees Do not have stingers None
Africanized Honey Bees Aggressive, more likely to sting Higher

In summary:

  • Worker bees can sting humans, but they die afterward.
  • Queen bees rarely sting humans.
  • Drone bees cannot sting as they lack stingers.
  • Africanized honey bees are more aggressive and pose a higher stinging threat.

Treatment of Honey Bee Stings

Initial Steps to Treat Bee Stings

When stung by a honey bee, the first step is to remove the stinger as soon as possible. Gently scrape it off with a fingernail or a credit card to avoid squeezing more venom into the skin. Then, wash the affected area with soap and water to reduce the risk of infection.

Apply ice to the sting site for 10-15 minutes at a time to help reduce pain and swelling. Make sure to wrap the ice in a cloth, and avoid applying the ice directly onto your skin.

Home Remedies

Several home remedies can help alleviate the pain and itching caused by a bee sting:

  • Apply a paste made of baking soda and water.
  • Dab the area with a cotton ball soaked in apple cider vinegar.
  • Spread honey on the sting site.
  • Lay a wet aspirin tablet on the affected area.

Remember to monitor symptoms for improvement or worsening, while trying these remedies.

Medical Help for Severe Reactions

Some individuals may experience severe allergic reactions to bee stings, which require immediate medical attention. Symptoms of a severe reaction include:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Rapid or weak pulse
  • Swelling of the face or throat
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Confusion or dizziness

If you notice these symptoms, call for medical help immediately. In some cases, an EpiPen (containing epinephrine) may be needed to manage life-threatening reactions.

Home Remedies Pros Cons
Baking soda and water Inexpensive, easy to prepare Temporary relief only
Apple cider vinegar Reduces itching May sting on application
Honey Soothes skin Sticky, attracts insects
Wet aspirin tablet Anti-inflammatory properties Not suitable for everyone

Stay aware of the symptoms and reactions to bee stings and seek professional help if needed, especially in case of severe reactions.

Prevention and Preparedness for Bee Stings

Understanding Bee Behavior

Honey bees typically sting only when they feel threatened or when they’re defending their hive. It’s essential to know the difference between types of bees to avoid accidentally provoking them. Queens, drone bees, and female honey bees each exhibit different behaviors:

  • Queens – They don’t usually sting humans as their primary focus is on laying eggs.
  • Drone bees – Males of the species, are incapable of stinging since they lack stingers.
  • Female honey bees – Worker bees, can sting if they feel threatened or if their hive is in danger.

To prevent honey bee stings, follow these steps:

  • Avoid swatting bees or making sudden movements near them.
  • Stay away from their hives or nests.
  • Cover the body with clothing and avoid wearing brightly colored patterns.
  • Refrain from using strong fragrances.

Carrying an Epipen

Some people may experience severe allergic reactions to honey bee stings, which could lead to symptoms such as dizziness, nausea, hives, low blood pressure, and difficulty breathing. In these cases, carrying an Epipen (epinephrine auto-injector) is highly recommended. An Epipen can be used to administer a dose of epinephrine to counteract the symptoms of a severe allergic reaction.

In addition to an Epipen, it’s also helpful to have the following medications on hand for those with milder reactions to honey bee stings:

  • Antihistamines – For itching and mild allergic reactions.
  • Albuterol – For difficulty breathing or wheezing.
  • Pain reliever – For reducing pain or discomfort due to the sting.
Pros Cons
Quick relief Prescription needed
Compact & portable Expensive
Lifesaving May require training to use properly

Remember that while being prepared for bee stings is important, it’s best to try to avoid encounters with bees in the first place. Learn their behavior, respect their space, and always have necessary supplies on hand if you or someone you know is prone to severe reactions.

Interesting Facts and Trivia About Honey Bee Stings

Multiple Bee Stings

Honey bees can be quite defensive when it comes to protecting their colony. While foraging, they’re generally passive and rarely sting unless provoked. However, if a bee feels threatened near its hive, multiple bees may join to attack the perceived threat. This can result in multiple bee stings for humans and animals, potentially causing severe reactions, especially in those who are allergic1. Some facts about multiple bee stings include:

  • The venom is a mixture of proteins, including melittin and apitoxin.
  • Venom sacs in their abdomen deliver the venom.
  • Allergic reactions can range from mild swelling and redness to life-threatening anaphylaxis.

Suicide Mission

Honey bee stings are often considered a “suicide mission” for the bees. When a honey bee stings, it’s a one-time act, as their barbed stingers get lodged in the victim’s skin2. Once the bee flies away, the stinger, along with part of the bee’s abdomen, digestive tract, and muscles, detaches, which leads to the death of the bee. Here’s a comparison of honey bee stings to other stinging insects:

Insect Sting Type Can Sting Multiple Times?
Honey Bee Barbed No2
Bumble Bee Smooth Yes3
Wasp Smooth Yes4

By understanding these fascinating facts about honey bees and their stinging behavior, we can better appreciate their important role in the ecosystem while remaining cautious around their colonies.

Footnotes

  1. Washington State Department of Health – Bees and Wasps

  2. Penn State Extension – Honey Bee Management 2

  3. Clemson HGIC – FAQ About Honey Bee Swarms

  4. Oklahoma State University Extension – Bees and Wasps

Reader Emails

Over the years, our website, whatsthatbug.com has received hundreds of letters and some interesting images asking us about these insects. Scroll down to have a look at some of them.

Letter 1 – Unknown Moth and Honey Bee on Milkweed

 

Subject: Accidental Photo of What May be an Exposed Bird-Dropping Moth
Location: Coryell County, central Texas
April 27, 2013 5:23 pm
I was photographing this honey bee on the wild milkweed today (may be Antelope Horn Milkweed?) and I later noticed a tiny fly (bee?), an ant, and what may be an Exposed Bird-Dropping Moth in the photo. No, I didn’t make up that name. 🙂 Here is a reference I found online: http://www.outdoornatureclub.org/Moths/content/9136_Exposed_Bird-Dropping_Moth_20100801_large.html
Warm, cloudy weather with scattered showers.
Thank you!
Signature: Ellen

Honey Bee and Moth on Milkweed
Honey Bee and Moth on Milkweed

Dear Ellen,
There are many moths that have coloration and markings that seem to mimic bird droppings, and when we first saw your subject line, we thought you must have meant one of the Wood Nymphs in the genus 
Eudryas.  Your moth does resemble the Bird Dropping Moth, however, we don’t believe it is the same species.  You were focused on the Honey Bee, so the details in the moth are not as sharp.  We did find another good image of a different species called the Small Bird Dropping Moth, Tarachidia erastrioides, on the Fontenelle Nature Association Nature Search website, but again, we don’t think it looks like an exact match to your moth.

What's That Moth???
What’s That Moth???

Letter 2 – We’ve Got Bees!!!!!

 

Imagine our glee when while we were gardening today, we noticed this swarm of Honey Bees that had taken up residence in our juniper bush. Many of our friends know that for ages we have been saying we wanted a bee hive, but sadly, in the city of Los Angeles, bee hives must be over 100 feet from the nearest structure. Such a law makes us want to be civilly disobedient. We don’t know where this wild swarm came from. Elyria Canyon perhaps, but we spoke to the bees at length, telling them how much we wanted them to stay and how much they would enjoy all the citrus we are planting. We also told the bees that we knew how awful it was to move, and how difficult to find a place that was nice. We assured the bees that our yard was nice. It is pesticide free. We would never freak out because the bees had moved in, unlike so many other people might. We also sympathized with the whole Colony Collapse Disorder. We suspect the bees hate getting shipped from state to state to pollinate orchards, and they would much rather stay in one place. We also suspect that people no longer “Tell The Bees” and the bees want to know. We told the bees that we might try to get some type of hive for them, but we don’t think we can do it soon. We know the juniper shrub is just a temporary layover. It was comforting talking to the bees. We told the bees secrets we tell no one.

Sadly, we didn’t convince the bees to stay. Minutes after we finished typing, and moments before we were going to upload, the bees took off in a swirling tornadolike swarm, only to disappear to parts unknown. For several hours, stray bees continued to search for the now missing swarm. Guess the Queen Bee doesn’t wait for stragglers.

Comment: (03/27/2008) Your honeybee swarm…
I am sorry the bees only came to visit and not stay. (Swarms usually just hang out til the scout bees find them a nice place to live like a hollow tree). They do make decorative hives that hold bees maybe your neighbors would think it was just a decoration. You won’t get honey from it, but you’ll have happy little pollinators in your yard! I say go for the civil disobedience! (Or work with your city or county to change the rules!) Have a great day! And happy spring!
Liz
Interpretive Naturalist

Letter 3 – Wild Honey Bee Hive in Walnut Tree in Elyria Canyon Park

 

Subject:  Wild Honey Bee Hive
Location:  Elyria Canyon Park, Mount Washington, Los Angeles, California
Date:  January 28, 2017 10:00 AM
We never had a chance to post this image we shot of a wild Honey Bee Hive in a hollow California Black Walnut Tree in Elyria Canyon Park.

Wild Honey Bee Hive

Letter 4 – Wild Honey Bees nesting in Hollow Tree

 

Are these honey bees?
Hi, Bugman!
I found these in the root of a tree in my back yard. They look to me like plain honey bees, but I’m told they wouldn’t nest underground. Best Regards,
Russell G. Richter

Hi Russell,
Honey Bees that have naturalized or gone wild and are not being kept in hives need to nest somewhere. Hollow trees are common locations as are crawl spaces and attics in homes. Your bees might be unually resourseful and have taken up home in the only place they could find, the hollowed root system of an old tree. For more information on Honey Bees, check out the Bees and Beekeeping site.

Letter 5 – Worker Bee Honey Bees work themselves to Death!!!

 

honey bee on the verge of retirement?
Daniel,
My nest question is more in regards to behavior than species. This is a picture I took in my backyard in Eugene, Oregon of what I assume is just your garden-variety honey-bee. They’re crazy for all the lavender we have and, though we have a bee-sting sensitive daughter, we’re happy to have them as only the ornery wasps on our porch have ever stung her.. But I digress.. If you notice, this bees wings look positively torn up and ragged and she was flying around a bit more sluggishly than the rest. Do the worker honeybees literally just gather nectar and pollen until their wings fall apart or do they die of old age before that? Seems like kind of a drag to be a bee whose wings have crapped out. You’d think they’d get a nice cushy retirement in the hive or something.. These girls need to unionize..
Brian

Hi Brian,
According to Ross E. Koning’s amusing Biology of the Honeybee site: Worker Bees live “20-40 days summer (worked to death) 140 days winter “. All that gathering does take its toll.

Authors

    by
  • Bugman

    Bugman aka Daniel Marlos has been identifying bugs since 1999. whatsthatbug.com is his passion project and it has helped millions of readers identify the bug that has been bugging them for over two decades. You can reach out to him through our Contact Page.

  • Piyushi Dhir

    Piyushi is a nature lover, blogger and traveler at heart. She lives in beautiful Canada with her family. Piyushi is an animal lover and loves to write about all creatures.

3 thoughts on “Do Honey Bees Sting? The Truth Behind Their Defensive Behavior”

  1. Thank you so much! I may just have to visit that field again today to see if I can spot it again and get a clearer photo. I so appreciate your insight and information.

    Reply
  2. Hi, I gave a HUGE tree in my back yard. Last year, I noticed a big mushroom at the base of the tree. The mushroom shortly went away. Early this summer the mushroom came back. However, I noticed there were a lot of flies and bees around the root and base of the tree. So I smashed the mushroom but the bees stayed and more bees and flies came. I’ve tried to research but I can’t find anything or a reason why this is happening. Please help. Trina

    Reply

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