The amount of ouch that comes along with a bee sting fascinates me. After getting stung by honey bees so often, I was amazed at how different stings from other bees can feel.
For example, the sting of an alkali bee is sharp like a pinprick, but the pain recedes immediately and the sting leaves no mark. The sting from an alfalfa leafcutting bee barely registers, but it leaves a small red welt that itches like a mosquito bite for days.
The worst sting I ever got was from a wasp of some sort. I didn’t see it on the handle of the garage door, and I wrapped my palm right around that sucker. I was in agony for an hour or more. Second in line for ouch was a bumble bee sting—although cute and fuzzy, they can pack a wallop.
For me, honey bee stings hurt, then itch, then disappear a few minutes later—unless I get stung on the face. The face ones swell up for days, which I don’t understand. Anyway, confusion about who stings and how often is common, so here are a few facts about stings in general.
How bee stingers work
- Only female bees can sting. Stingers evolved from ovipositors, and since males don’t lay eggs, they don’t have ovipositors. Wasps have long, slender ovipositors for laying eggs inside the bodies of other invertebrates. In some cases, the ovipositor also carries a poison that anesthetizes its prey. When vegetarian bees evolved from wasps, they didn’t need to weaken their prey (pollen isn’t inclined to run away) so the stinger evolved into a defense mechanism.
- Not all female bees can sting. According to Laurence Packer in Keeping the Bees, only about 75% of bee species have females that can sting humans.
- Honey bees are the only bees with barbed stingers. A few species of wasps have barbed stingers, but among the bees, honey bees are unique. A barb securely embedded in the skin of the enemy gives the venom gland more time to pump its contents.
- Honey bees die after they sting. The bee dies because a portion of its internal organs are ripped from its abdomen as it flies away. But the worker may not die immediately; some live hours or even days after the event.
- Honey bee stingers don’t always embed. Sometimes, when honey bees sting thin-skinned creatures such as other bees, the stinger does not embed and they can sting again.
- Bees without barbs can sting many times. Except for honey bees, bees that can sting, can sting many times because the stingers slide out easily without damaging the bee.
- The stinger of a queen honey bee has no barbs. The lack of barbs means she can sting more than once. Honey bee queens use their stingers to fend off competition from other queens within the hive, including virgins.
- Stingless honey bees sound like a dream come true. But not really. Although stingless honey bees don’t sting, they bite and spit caustic venom into the wound.
- Sting venoms are unique. According to Sammataro and Avitabile in The Beekeeper’s Handbook, the venom produced by each species has a unique chemical profile. For this reason, some hurt more than others, and a person allergic to the sting of one species may not be allergic to the sting of another.
Some people say that allergic reactions rarely result from solitary bee stings. They claim that the proteins that cause allergic reactions in mammals only arose in highly social insects such as honey bees, yellowjackets, and other social wasps.
Unfortunately, most non-beekeepers don’t know what stung them, so it’s hard to collect data from the field. I would love to know more.
Honey Bee Suite
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