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Why Do Honey Bees Sting?

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Do Bees Want to Sting You?

Honey bees do not want to sting humans and only do so as a form of defense. If the bee herself feels threatened or you are too close to the hive – watch out. Honey bees are very passionate about protecting their family. They will give everything they have to ward off an attacker. But, even the most ardent bee lovers, don’t like getting stung . This often leads to the person feeling like they did not do anything – why did the bee sting?

Worker honey bee stinging a human finger image.

World-wide there are thousands of species of bees. Some are social insects that live in large families and others live a more solitary life. Honey bees are perhaps the most well-known type of bee -followed closely by the Bumble Bee.

Honey bees are valued for making honey and pollinating crops.   In fact, moving hives across the country for agricultural purposes is big business in the US.

These normally non-aggressive insects go about their daily routine taking little notice of us…. usually ! But, one of the most well-known facts about honey bees is that they are willing to die to defend the hive.

picture of a bee sting why honeybees sting

Why Do Bees Sting Me for No Reason?

My childhood featured many days of running barefoot through the summer clover. This resulted in honey bee stings on more than one occasion.  A sting in a bare foot hurts!

Full of frustration, I thought “why did you sting me?” I didn’t do anything wrong.  Actually, I did do harm to the bee – although I didn’t mean to hurt her.

Honey bees sting as a form of defense. They are defending themselves because they feel threatened. (i.e. They do not like being stepped on for example).

In most cases, a honey bee sting is an effort to drive you away from their nest. It is a rather effective technique – isn’t it? Hundreds or thousands of worker bees guard the hive. Inside is the next generation of baby bees and food the colony depends on to survive Winter.

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 bees are busy foraging for food and raising young.

Do All Honey Bees Sting?

Allowing for some variation among species, yes- most honey bees do sting. Inside a normal honey bee colony, you will have 3 types of bees – 2 are female (the queen bee and the workers) and one male bee – (drones).

All of the female honey bees have the capacity to sting. The male honey bees, or drones, do not.

Worker Bee Stings – Major Colony Defense

It is the task of the worker bee to protect the hive against any predators. If the hive is attacked by another honey bee colony (we call this robbing), the workers will fly out by the hundreds or thousands to sting their rivals.

If a bear, skunk or um…. beekeeper, attempts to raid the hive (from the bee’s point of view), it is the female workers who are on the defensive line.

This is another reason to have an electric bear fence if you keep bees in bear country. Bears will destroy hives sometime even going through an electric fence.

Can baby bees sting? Baby bees can not sting at first. Even though adult bees emerge from their brood cell at full size, the stinger needs a few days to harden before it functions well.

Can Honey Bees Sting Multiple Times?

Normally, honey bees can not sting a mammal more than once if the stinger pierces the skin. They have a barbed stinger on the end of their abdomen. When this stinger is inserted into skin, it becomes lodged in and usually can not be removed.

As the stinger and attached poison sac rip from the body of the bee, it continues to pump poison into the target. Alas, the worker will die – she has given her life to protect her colony.

Does a Queen Bee Sting?

It is understandable to be concerned about a queen bee stinger. She is the largest 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.

The queen honey bee sting is different from that of a worker. The stinger of a queen is longer and not barbed.

This smooth stinger is used to sting rival queens. This is normal queen bee behavior.  So Yes, a queen bee could sting you-but they rarely do.

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

When beekeepers want to replace a failing queen or give the hive a new queen with different genetic, the new queen must be introduced slowly. Simply dumping a new queen in a hive results in her being stung to death.

Honey bee sitting on human finger - with pollen on back legs image.

How to Avoid Honey Bee Stings

A better understanding of why honey bees sting will help you avoid a painful encounter. Enjoy watching honey bees 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 a bee flies close by. Threatened bees are attracted to movement. 

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

Honey Bee Stings Near the Hive

Stay a respectful distance from any known beehive. Give the bees plenty of flying space especially in front of the beehive.

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

If bees are taking to much of an interest in you, walk quickly away – try not to run!   If the bees follow you, get inside a building or vehicle.  A thick stand of trees or bushes may help as well.

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.

A young beekeeper protected from stings by bee jacket image.

Bees May Sting Children at Play

Why do honey bees sting children? Usually, kids get too close to the beehive. tease a foraging bee or accidentally step on a working bee and this result in a sting. Wearing shoes when outside in patches of clover is a good idea. Trust me. 🙂

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 bees.

We don’t want children to be fearful of bees – just respectful.

What to do if a Bee Stings You?

If you get stung by a bee, walk away from the area quickly. When honey bees sting, they release a pheromone that attracts other bees.

Move inside or to a darker place, maybe among trees or bushes to get away from the bees and make it harder for them to find you.

(This advice is for people who are NOT in an area with Africanized bees!   Africanized bees are very defensive – run, run and run some more. )

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.

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

For a normal reaction to a sting, you may try one of several Home Remedies for Bee Stings.

Why Do Bees Sting If They Die?

Honey bees are normally not aggressive but they are social insects. Every individual works together for the good of the colony.

Unlike wasps, which can sting you multiple times, a honey bee only has one shot at stopping you. She gives it all she has got.

Why do honey bees sting? They are trying to convince you to leave. Most bees are not aggressive and do not seek out human targets. The secret to avoiding bee stings is to give them respect.

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16 Comments

  1. Alan Giachino says:

    Excellent.
    Is there any evidence how far a hive should be from human habitation.
    The concept of urban beekeeing is the issue.
    Thanks

  2. I prefer hives be 50 ft away from human paths. And/or have them 20 ft away with some type of barrier/wall about 3 ft in front of the hive – this is to direct bee traffic up and out.

  3. Gordie Maurer says:

    Nice informative article on Bee Stings

  4. Great article, thank you!

  5. This is the best and most thorough information I have found, for someone planning to keep bees. Thank you for covering all my concerns. I will have little ones visiting and people fishing near us. I was not sure how to handle the foot traffic and bees. The 3 ft barrier is the perfect solution! How do I know how big or how many hives are good for my property? Is there a rule of thumb for acreage?

  6. Thank you. The number of colonies per bee yard varies a lot due to many factors. Available forage in the area during the growing season is the top consideration. In general, here in my region I have found that more than 15-20 in one location is not most productive.

  7. Chris Dawson says:

    How long can a honey bee survive after she has stung a person?

  8. It depends. If she gets in a good sting, she will die right away – within minutes. If you just tags you and the stinger doesnt embed in your skin – she may live to try again another day.

  9. Patrick Richardson says:

    Recently I’ve been stung a couple of times when I was only 10 feet away from the hive and not moving. Yesterday I was sitting down and a single bee decided to start bumping the back of my neck and then stung me. Keep in mind this was about almost an hour after inspecting the hive where I only wore a veil and nitrile gloves and didn’t get stung. Last time I happened to be standing about three feet to the side, but was in what seemed to be a flight path for returning foragers. The hive is up on a small terrace about our yard and I also have dark hair (short) which may contribute to their agressiveness.
    I am new to beekeeping (2 months) and was wondering at what point do you consider a colony to be too “aggressive” and in need of re-queening.
    Enjoy reading your articles/advice!
    Aloha from a “Newbee” in California.

  10. Although it doesn’t make your stings hurt any less… I would not consider those events an aggressive hive. For myself, I requeen a hive that fits one of these 2 characteristics. 1) Constantly has guard bees chase me even when I am more than 10 feet from the hive or 2) can’t be worked or inspected (even using smoke) without bees bouncing off my veil and behaving in attack mode. If they are this defensive consistently over 3 inspections and I see no problems to explain it then I requeen.

  11. Patrick Richardson says:

    Thank you for the advice! But speaking of “smoke,” I’ve noticed recently while inspecting the brood chamber frames, that it takes what seems like a lot of smoke to get the bees on the top of the frames to move away; which they eventually do. I use grass and plant clippings in my smoker. I am comparing this to what I’ve seen on YouTube of experienced beekeepers using smoke and where the bees seem to move rather quickly when given smoke lightly. Maybe I am just overthinking this!
    Thanks again!

  12. I find bees move rather quickly away from smoke but they will be reluctant to leave brood. Always use as little smoke as needed, we just want to distract them. Cool white smoke is best.

  13. Ronnie mcneill says:

    Hi, enjoyed your article re honeybees.
    I suffer fro RA in my finger joints which can become extremely painful I discovered some years ago that bee sting venom is exceptionally good at reducing the RA pain and increasing mobility.
    I have since learnt a little about BVT(bee venom therapy) and have been visiting my friendly beekeeper every six weeks where I have the guard bees sting my finger joints, the relief is amazing so much so I have not taken pain medication for over six years.

  14. That’s wonderful. Nature has so much to offer us and while it may not work for everyone – if it helps you that is fantastic.

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