Why Do Honey Bees Sting?

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Honey bees are revered as impressive pollinators and makers of honey – but one thing we don’t like – bee stings. Why do bees sting? Even the hard-working honey bee is known to sting on occasion. If you have ever felt that bees were out to get you- you are not alone. However, there are good reasons that bees sting humans.

Honey bee close up with stinger extended.

Honey bees live in large social families with hives full of developing young and stored food. A docile insect overall, it is a well-known bee fact that disturbing the colony results in stings.

Reasons Bees Sting

Most stinging situations occur between humans and bees because of two situations:

  • defense – the bee feels threatened
  • defending the hive – you are close to the nest

Bees sting most often as a form of defense. They are defending themselves because they feel threatened.

This is why it is not a good idea to flap your arms at bees. It is much better to walk quickly away – otherwise, they may perceive your flailing arms as an attack.

Stings are also an effort to drive you away from their nest. It is a rather effective technique – isn’t it?

In a honey bee colony, worker bees guard the area near the nest. They will challenge and attack an unwanted intruder – including you. Inside is the next generation of baby bees and food the colony depends on to survive Winter.

Guard bees at hive entrance ready to sting for defense.

Types of Bees That Sting

The most common stings occur from honey bees, yellow jacket wasps and paper wasps. These insects live together to raise young and they are some of the most common insects that come into contact with humans.

Of course, not every species of bee has a stinger. In fact, some bees bite instead. Thankfully, honey bees do not have teeth – life as a beekeeper is hard enough.

Yet, not every member of a bee family uses the stinger to protect the colony. It is the females that are the protectors.

A honey bee colony contains 3 types of individuals: 2 are female (the queen bee and the worker bees) and male or drone honey bees.

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All of the female honey bees have the capacity to sting. The drones, do not have a stinger or play a role in colony defense. This is true in other insect families too. For instance the male carpenter bees do not sting.

Members of a honey bee colony that sting or have no stinger.

Queen Bee Stings

It is understandable to be concerned about a sting from a queen bee. The queen is the largest size bee in the hive – so surely her sting would be a doozy.

But, you have little to fear in regards to being stung by a queen. Though she has the ability to sting you – it rarely happens.

The queen’s stinger is different from that of a worker. Longer and lacking barbs, her smooth stinger is only used to sting rival queens.

When do Most Stings Occur?

Ask any young child to tell you what they know about bees. I was doing a school program one time and, I asked the 3rd graders to tell me “When you think about honey bees- what is the first thing to come to mind?” 

One little boy yelled out “getten stung”. His answer generated a lot of laughs and agreement. I said, “Yes, they certainly do sting sometimes but the answer I was looking for was that bees make honey.”

This resulted in a good laugh for everyone and then we listened to several traumatic tales of getting stung by bees. 

Getting an occasional bee sting is a part of enjoying life outdoors. And most of these stinging episodes happen during the warm months when the foragers are out looking for food and raising young.

Honey bee stings human skin and stinger is stuck.

Why Honey Bees Can Sting Just Once (Usually)

Normally, a worker honey bee can not sting a mammal more than once. They have a barb on the end of their stinger.

When this stinger is inserted into skin, it becomes lodged and usually can not be removed. The stinger and attached venom sac rip from the body of the bee. It continues to pump poison into the target.

Alas, the worker will die. Part of her digestive tract along with nerves and muscles are also pulled from the abdomen.

How to Avoid Bee Stings

A better understanding of why bees sting will help you avoid a painful encounter. Enjoy watching them gather nectar from flowers-but give them space.

I know it is almost impossible to do but try to resist swinging your arms (swatting) when one flies close by. Threatened bees are attracted to movement. 

Swatting will not encourage them to settle down. Move away. And don’t go outside in Summer smelling like a flower garden, insects are very sensitive to scent and may seek you out. This certainly won’t keep bees away from you.

Wasp nest in a tree with workers to protect young.

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Stay Away from Nests

Learn how to recognize bee nests and wasps nests. Stay a respectful distance from any known beehive. Give them plenty of flying space especially in front of the hive.

If you see a wasp or hornet nest, stay back. Bees are different than wasps. Wasps are predators and have a much more aggressive attitude about you getting close to their home.

When you compare honey bees vs yellow jacket wasps, don’t let the similar appearance fool you. These are two very different insects.

During Summer, insects may be attracted to a swimming pool. Take some steps to keep bees out of the pool. Using these critter savers may even work – place them away from the steps.

If you are out walking and bees are taking too much of an interest in you, walk quickly away. Try to avoid running. If they follow you, get inside a building or vehicle. A thick stand of trees or bushes may help as well.

If you are a new beekeeper, keep this in mind when deciding where to set up your beehives. Don’t place hives too close to the house or high traffic areas.

Many beekeepers use Caution Bee Hive signs to warn unsuspecting visitors about the beehives. In some areas it is the law that beehive locations must be marked, check your local regulations.

When Bees Sting Children at Play

Why do honey bees sting children? There are a couple of reasons that kids and bees may end up in a confrontation. These include:

  • getting too close to a hive or nest
  • teasing a worker busy foraging
  • stepping on or near one in clover
A young beekeeper protected from stings by bee jacket.

Education goes a long way in sting prevention. Teach children that they should never throw stones or sticks at beehives or any type of bee nest. This activity could result in a strong defensive reaction by the colony.

We don’t want children to be fearful of bees – just respectful. Wearing shoes when outside in patches of clover loved by bees is a good idea. Trust me. 🙂

Pets are also in danger of being stung. Sometimes a dog will eat a bee – usually it will be fine. However, you need to watch for allergic reactions even in pets. Talk with your veterinarian.

What to do if a Bee Stings You

If you get stung, walk away from the area quickly. If you live in an area known to have Africanized bees, – run, run and run some more. When disturbed they can be fatal – get inside, even if some of them come with you.

Do you see a stinger in your skin? As quickly as possible, use your fingernail to scrape the stinger out. The longer you leave the stinger in – the more poison you will experience.

For a normal reaction to a sting, you may try one of several home remedies for bee stings to relieve pain, itching and swelling.

If you know you are allergic or you experience any systemic symptoms (extreme swelling, difficulty breathing, swelling throat, nausea or racing heart etc. ) seek medical assistance immediately. 

FAQs

Do worker bees ever sting the queen?

Worker stings are usually reserved for attackers. But sometimes, the workers will sting and kill a queen. This happens when the colony decides to raise a new one – the old one has to go!

Why do bees sting if they die?

Honey bees are normally not aggressive. But they are social insects living in large families. They will sting to protect themselves and their home.

Can baby bees sting?

New bees emerge from their cells as full grown adults. These “baby bees” do have a stinger but they can not sting for a few days.

Do all bees sting?

No, in many types of bees only the females of the colony can sting. In some species, bees do not sting at all – they bite.

Final Thoughts

My childhood involved many days of running barefoot through the summer clover and lots of honey bee stings. I was full of frustration – “why did this bee sting me?” I didn’t do anything wrong from my point of view – but the stepped on bee felt differently. In general, honey bees are docile – they don’t want to sting you. Try to be aware of your surroundings and share the outdoor space.