do bumblebees sting

Can Bumblebees Sting?

Bumblebees are gentle giants—they’re not known for being aggressive and will generally keep to themselves. Today we’re going to talk about the bumblebee sting. Are bumblebees capable of stinging and, if so, does it hurt?

Most times when we think of bees, painful stings come to mind. The assumption that all bees sting is as old as time. Did you know that not all bee species are capable of stinging? Some will bite, while others simply bump with their behind.

Do Bumblebees Sting?

Yes, bumblebees do sting. We generally know the bumblebee as a kind species that calmly bumbles along in the air, foraging for pollen and nectar. They do, however, carry a secret weapon at the end of their abdomen, namely a poisonous stinger.

bumblebee stinger

Much like honeybees and even wasps, bumblebees won’t hesitate to defend themselves using their venomous sting, if they feel threatened. However, they aren’t, fortunately, quite as aggressive and territorial as honeybees and wasps.

If we take a look at honeybees, they have a large colony to defend, which stores some precious goods. If you get too close, they will likely swarm to scare you off before attacking. Bumblebees, on the other hand, have a much smaller nest, which most people can’t easily find.

bumblebee nest

Bumblebees prefer to nest on the ground, in the hidden corners of your yard, perhaps under your shed, or in an old rodent burrow. Their nests rarely cross our paths so they don’t have much reason for being aggressive.

Bumblebees are, in fact, quite intelligent, and some scientists were even able to teach them a ball game. Many of those who work with and around these bees will also state that they’ve never been stung. I don’t know about you, but I have many memories as a child, searching my garden for bumblebees to study.

Do All Bumblebees Sting?

No, not all bumblebees are capable of stinging. It’s actually only the females, including the queen, who has a stinger. The males, or drones, however, don’t have a stinger and therefore, won’t sting.

The stinger is actually a modified egg-laying tool that bees and wasps developed to easily lay their eggs into cells. Social bees that live together in colonies only needed the queen to lay the eggs. So, over time, this tool became a method of defense instead.  

Some bumblebees nest in old birdhouses, for example. The males will usually hover around the entrance as if they are guarding it. It can be intimidating seeing five or six drones swarming the air, but they’re not capable of causing any significant harm. The queen and workers, on the contrary, won’t hesitate to sting.

bumble bees inside some wood
CC Image courtesy of allan_harris

The bumblebee queen is the largest bee in the colony. She does, however, often face threats and must defend her position from intruding females, such as the cuckoo bee. She will use her stinger to fight off these intruders who ventured too far into the nest. Unfortunately, she’s not always successful and may have to give up her hive.

The worker bees all consist of females. Most of these, unlike the queen, are sterile and don’t have an ovipositor. Their reproductive organ has instead grown into a stinger, that produces venom and can leave a painful mark.

What Happens to the Bumblebee After It Stings?

If a bumblebee uses its stinger it won’t die, unlike the honeybee, although it still has a relatively short lifespan regardless.

The honeybee’s stinger is barbed and will get stuck into the skin of its victim. When the bee tries to pull the stinger out, it gets stuck and will rip the bee apart. It loses all of its vital organs and will quickly die.

The bumblebee’s stinger is smooth and can easily be removed intact by the bee. This also means that the defending bumblebee can actually continue to attack multiple times. If the bee is very angry, it could potentially cause more harm than the honeybee.

The stinger can sometimes break off, but this doesn’t always mean the end for the bee. Bumblebee skin is not as elastic as the honeybee’s, so the stinger may simply break off without pulling half of the bee with it. It doesn’t regrow, though, and the bee will never sting again.

Fortunately, that’s not a big issue for the bumblebee, as she rarely uses it anyway.

Do Bumblebee Stings Hurt?

Only a couple of times in my life have I been stung by a bumblebee, and I was too young to remember the exact level of pain. I have, however, heard that bumblebee stings don’t hurt as much as that of wasps or honeybees.

A bee’s stinger contains a chemical called melittin. Once you are stung, it’s released into the area, where it quickly stimulates the local pain receptors. This will be perceived as a burning sensation which may either feel irritating or painful. The area will likely swell and feel irritated. This may last for a couple of days, or more if you don’t treat it.

This is, however, not as bad as the honeybee’s sting. Remember that the honeybee’s stinger is a jagged sword, which lodges itself into your skin. It remains there until you’re able to remove it, and will continue to pump the venom for as long a minute.

The bumblebee, on the contrary, is a fast sting and release. The bee will soon be on its way to rest, unless you really provoked it.

How much the sting will hurt also depends on its location. Your neck and face are probably two of the most painful places to be stung. So if you’ve been so unlucky that you disturbed a bumblebee, make sure that you cover your face and neck as you’re retreating.

How to Treat a Bumblebee Sting

It’s very important to know how to treat a bee sting correctly. You have to act as fast as possible to avoid more venom entering in your system and to try and prevent a severe reaction. This is especially important if it’s a child who was stung.

Children love playing outside and any parent can relate to the heart-wrenching feeling when you hear that scream. It’s unmistakable—bee stings do hurt, especially on children.

Here’s what you should do in case this happens:

  1. Try to remain calm—the bee will likely only sting once if it sees that you’re not a threat. So, quietly walk away, or remove your child from the area before proceeding with treatment.
  2. Gently remove the stinger if it’s been left behind. It’s important to remove it, since the venom will continue to pump. Use a tool to scrape the stinger, this can be your clean fingernail or some gauze.
  3. Wash the area with water and soap.
  4. Use a cold pack—grab an ice pack or frozen vegetables from the freezer and apply to the area to minimize swelling. Leave it on for no longer than 10 minutes at a time.
  5. If the sting was on the arm or leg, try to elevate it.
  6. Consider pain medication. If you were stung, you can take some pain medication such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen. If your child was stung, contact your pediatrician for safe painkillers if needed.

Some recommend that you mark the area with a pen. This way you can keep track if the swelling spreads to another area, indicating a severe reaction.

If you have been stung on your body, and start to notice swelling in your face or throat, go to the emergency room immediately. Other symptoms of severe reactions include difficulty breathing, hives, nausea, and dizziness.

What Not to Do

If the stinger is stuck in your skin, don’t ever try to remove it with a tweezer, or other tools that may squeeze it. If you press on the stinger, it will release more venom and this could lead to further swelling.

How to Avoid Being Stung by a Bumblebee

Believe it or not, this is actually pretty easy. As mentioned earlier, bumblebees aren’t known for being particularly aggressive. They generally mind their own business and may even let you study them up close.

It’s still, however, best to leave them alone. Avoid getting too close to their nest, stepping on it or even breathing on it.

If you come across a tired bumblebee resting on a flower, don’t pick it up. It may think you’re a predator and will sting you.

bumblebee
CC Image courtesy of mattx27

Here are some more things you can do to avoid being stung:

  • Don’t walk barefoot. Whenever you’re in the garden, wear some type of footwear. This will protect your feet if you accidentally step on a bee.
  • Keep your hands and face clean when eating outdoors. Ice cream, sweets, juices, soda, these are all favorites during the summer, but the sugar may attract bees. Keep wipes with you to clean yourself and your children.
  • Stay calm. Bumblebees are busy foraging and won’t harm you unless you provoke them. So just leave them be and avoid flapping your arms when they get close, they’re not likely to settle on you, anyhow.

Summary

A bumblebee sting rarely occurs, unless the bee senses danger. Luckily, bumblebees are not prone to stinging and, even if they do, it’s not usually as painful as a honeybee or wasp sting. Stay calm, remove the stinger if it’s stuck, clean the area, and you should be fine. Allergic reactions are rare for many people, but if they do occur, you should go to the hospital immediately.

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