why do bees sting

Why Do Bees Sting?

It’s no secret that bees sting—it’s been a known fact probably since the day humans met bees. The question, however, is why do bees sting? Do they sting when they’re hungry, angry, by accident, or on purpose?

Today we’re going to explore this topic and get to the bottom of exactly why bees sting.

Top Reasons Why Bees Sting

Bees are known stingers. Although the reasons behind their attacks are usually the same across species, some are more prompt to sting than others. Eusocial bees, such as the honeybee, will not second guess an attack when someone threatens their work.

Solitary bees act a bit different because they’re alone. The females will only sting if you handle them in a rough way or disturb their nest. Other than that, they rarely sting.

Here are some top reasons why a bee might sting.

To Protect Their Colony/Nest

Bees have a natural instinct for protecting themselves and their family. This is also why they will not hesitate to attack you if you pose a threat to their nest.

Let’s look at the most social bee—the honeybee. Honeybee colonies often grow to 60,000 bees. The guards of the hive will do everything to protect their queen and siblings inside.

A honeybee hive is like a well-oiled machine—each bee has its own duties. As the worker bee grows older, she’ll get a new job. Once a worker bee’s stinger has hardened, she will become a guard.

Hive guards will stand at the entrance, identifying the bees flying in and out of the nest. They distinguish between intruders and residents by using different cues, where intruders get an unwelcoming greeting.

The guards will alert defender bees who will then pursue the intruders. They will, however, only sting if the trespasser poses a significant threat.

Defenders will actually only sting as a last resort. First, they’ll likely try to intimidate the intruder by making a high-pitched buzz. Then fly toward the victim in the hopes of scaring them away. If that doesn’t do it, they’ll use their sharp stinger.

Bumblebees work in similar ways, except that their colonies are much smaller. They are reluctant to sting unless you were to disturb their nest by poking at it.

To Protect Their Food Storage

Honeybees generally protect their hives from honey robbers. Honey robbers are neighboring bees that are short on honey before the winter. These find a smaller colony from where they’ll steal their honey.

The bees in the victim colony will, of course, do what they can to protect it. This includes using their stingers to kill the attackers. You might be able to recognize such a fight if you see swarms of buzzing bees around the entrance of a hive.

The bees are likely to do the same to you if you were to open their hive and poke your hands in their stored honey. This is also why beekeepers use calming smoke.

hive with smoker

The smoke won’t harm the bees. It simply puts a damper on their defensive pheromones, making it safe to inspect their hive.

Attack Signals From Other Bees

Bees frequently use pheromones, or chemical signals, to communicate with each other. This could be for almost anything, such as behavior in the hive, foraging, and also warning others and defense.

The alerting bee can release such pheromones in different ways. This could be either by ejecting their stinger or during stinging or when the stinger is inserted in the victim. Nearby bees will sense the signal and join the attack.

The bees will go from calm to highly agitated in seconds, following the scent back to the attacker.

Africanized honeybees are much more likely to sting than other honeybees. They become agitated by the slightest disturbance and will often chase their victim.

These also use alarm pheromones, but their response is 2.4 times quicker than other bees. If you were to move or run away, their response will become 30 times faster.

It’s believed that the reason behind this quick response is that they’re native to tropic regions where predators are rife.

What Happens After a Bee Stings?

The chain of events after a bee stings will differ between species. To understand it a little better, we’ll look at the different stingers.

Many bees, such as bumblebees and solitary bees, have smooth stingers. This means that they can actually sting multiple times without suffering any harm to themselves.

bumblebee stinger

Honeybees, on the other hand, have barbed stingers. If you zoom in on their stinger, you’ll notice small jagged edges. As the honeybee stings, these will get stuck in the skin of the victim, continuing to pump venom.

This is also why a sting from a honeybee generally hurts more than that of a bumblebee. Especially if you fail to remove the stinger, it will continue to pump venom into you. The sting may hurt for a couple of hours.

The honeybee will die shortly after the attack because these barbs mean the bee cannot remove the sting from the victim. As the bee attempts to fly off, most of its abdomen will remain with the stinger. The disemboweled bee might still fly around your head but it eventually dies.

The exception to this rule is the honeybee queen—her stinger is smooth, which means she can sting several times.

Do All Bees Sting?

Not all bees can and will sting. Like I mentioned earlier, defender bees are more likely to sting because they have a colony to defend. Foraging bees, however, will rarely sting since they’re busy doing their job of collecting supplies for the colony.

What Is a Stinger?

If we look at what the stinger really is, we can quickly understand why it’s actually only female bees who can sting. The stinger on a bee is an adapted egg-laying tool, called the ovipositor. It’s what the female bees use to lay their eggs.

This, of course, means that male bees can’t sting. They really don’t have a way to defend themselves, other than using their bodies and buzzing. This is something we can see with the carpenter bee male.

carpenter bee

These will often stay close to the entrance of a female nest, where they scare off intruders by flying toward them. Here they’ll sound a loud and intimidating buzz. So, to conclude, male bees don’t sting and are therefore of little to no threat to humans

How to Avoid Bee Stings

There is plenty of advice on how to avoid a painful bee sting. The best thing to do when near a nest or hive is to just stay calm. The bees won’t see you as a threat if you leave them in peace.

If you’re going to a place where you know there’s likely be a bee nest or hive, try to avoid attracting the bees. Try not to wear colorful, bright clothes or flowery perfumes. Eating sweet food may attract bees, as well.

The bees will likely sense the carbon dioxide coming from your breath. This is another clue they use to spot predators. Looking and breathing like a predator, walking close to their nest is a sure way of getting stung.

Wearing dark-colored clothes, particularly leather or fur, will make you resemble a predator (such as a bear) to the bee. Bees can’t see the color red either; instead, it appears as black, so this should also be avoided.

The best clothing to wear is light colors, even including socks. These are less likely to agitate the bees.

Summary

Bees are known stingers, although sometimes the exact reason behind their stinging remain a mystery. For the most part, however, bees will sting to protect their nest and brood from predators, prevent their food from being stolen, and to aid fellow bees in battle.

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