That smarts! 9 fascinating facts about bee stingers

Honey bees kill a bald-faced hornet. Photo by Rusty Burlew

Honey bees kill a hornet. Honey bee stingers can often be withdrawn from a small predator and used again.

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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  • Years ago I flipped over a piece of plywood and uncovered a nest of bumbles. One flew up and stung me on the stomach through my shirt. I still have a knot from it.

  • The worst sting I ever had was from a Conga ant on the Napo river in Ecuador where I was a Peace Corps Vol. in the 70’s. I watched the stinger come out and arch into the tip of my index finger. The pain shot up a nerve in my arm and then I felt it come back down to my hand. My arm and hand were in pain for the rest of the day & still hurt some the following day. I believe that ants are said to be more closely related genetically to bees than wasps.

  • Worst case scenario anaphylactic shock. How does one recognize it in ones self and others? What is the first responder’s appropriate actions to anaphylactic shock?

    • Ronald,

      Wrong website. Try one of the medical sites for answers to these questions. When I’ve seen anaphylactic shock, the person’s palms started to itch, and then they had trouble breathing, but I think the symptoms can be different depending on the individual. Any one who knows they are prone to anaphylaxis should carry an Epi-pen.

      • Hi Rusty,
        Leaving the medical details aside, it would be interesting to hear testimonies from people who develop sensitivity reactions to bee stings and how they deal with it.
        I myself developed a sensitivity reaction a few months after getting my first bee hive, last year, and had to get a steroid and anti-histamine shot on my second bee sting within a month. It was a bit scary the first time round.
        I have had a specialist consultation, checked for specific antibodies against bee, paper wasp and Vespa sp. wasp venom to ascertain the degree of my body reaction to these venoms and now carry with me at all times both anti-histamine pills, corticosteroid pills and epi-pen (adrenaline/epinephrine) shots.
        Thankfully, on my next 3 stings (so far) I have been able to control symptoms with just pills, I never developed full anaphylactic symptoms such as difficulty breathing or low blood tension. So, I keep on trying to find ways to avoid further stings but I am unable, for now, to give up on keeping bees, I love it too much.
        The doctor that saw me did complain about this. She says that she doesn’t understand what it is about bee keeping but she always fails to convince people that go to her to give up bee keeping. She is a specialist in venom dessenssitivation therapy (‘vaccination’ for venom) for the people with anaphylactic reactions. When she told me the safest option would be to give it up I told her I would like to avoid that as I love it too much. She sighed and said that was the typical answer and she has learned to live with the reticence of bee keepers to give it up. So she gave me advices on how best to avoid being stung and how to deal with it when it happens and what cares to take.
        I didn’t qualify for the venom vaccination as my reaction wasn’t deemed life-threatning so far (thankfully) , and I have fortunately been able to control it with pills. I did get stung once on my scalp and my face became quite ‘funny’. My lips looked like Angelina Jolie’s and my eyes got burried in edema. As I was waiting for the pill effects to kick in and I had rushed to my neighbours house so someone could administer the epinephrine shot to me should I need it and was unable to do it myself it was in a strange way kind of funny to watch myself in the mirror. But not looking forward for it to happen again.
        How do people deal with it in the States or elsewhere? It would be interesting to hear other beekeepers experience of it and how they went about dealing with it.
        Mind you, in no way do I intend to take lightly something that can and does kill people, sometimes extremely fast. Someone with full anaphylactic reaction to a bee sting can go into shock and die within a couple of minutes, it isn’t something to take lightly and the epi-pen should be right next to someone with allergic reactions.
        But maybe people can share how they learned to cope with their less serious allergic reaction to bee venom and their strategies to avoid being stung.

      • Speaking as a beekeeper that has recently undergone an anaphylactic reaction to a honeybee sting, you are correct. A non-localized reaction is one sign. My mistake was thinking that breathing trouble was always a symptom, there are many more.

        Yeah, I think that WebMD might be a far more appropriate site to get info on anaphylaxis…..

  • I keep an epi-pen on hand at my home, where I keep my hives. (Just ask your doctor for a prescription; it shouldn’t be a problem.) This is just in case someone who doesn’t know they really ARE allergic to bee stings gets stung. (Actually, I wish I had a nickel for all the times a friend told me they are allergic to bees, when they’re really not.)

    • Hey Mark –

      First, the littlehouse blog link does not seem to lead to any posting beyond the title. The Mike Smith NIH post on the other hand — yikes. Alex Wild, (my prior post just above you) said he’d trade 7 bullet ant stings on the arm for the one honey bee sting he’d gotten on his nose. Both Smith and Wild et al make Justin Schmidt’s development of the Sting index seem sane and rational, maybe even slightly dull and boring — until now I’d considered that he was meticulous but borderline certifiable.

  • I forgot how bad a honeybee sting felt till I was recently stung. A week later I was stung but the stinger didn’t go in very far and it felt more like I pricked my finger. As for bad reaction I have had a anaphylaxis reaction to a yellow jacket sting to my lip. If you have any swelling beware and better be safe than sorry. Important to search a medical site or talk to your doctor about this if you keep bees. My doctor told me that it is possible to have no reaction with one sting but have a serious reaction the next. I keep two epy- pens with me when I work the bees . Please read up on this serious reaction.

  • Two of my bees stung me in a symmetric position on either side of my neck/face. Within minutes swelling on both sides of my face and neck appeared. Even though an ambulance crew administered an antihistamine injection the swelling increases. About 12 hours later my air passage was reducing in size rapidly. Steroids and strong antibiotic treatment worked.

  • My poor little shitzhu got stung, she’s 7 lbs, I did call my vet they said give her children’s benadryl half tsp twice a day. My question is: Have you ever seen a dog sneeze uncontrollably from a bee sting, and if so is she allergic to them? Because she did immediately, poor little thing was sneezing so hard she banged her nose on our tile floor, and bled ever so slightly. We think it was a honey bee, she was sniffing little white clover flowers in our yard. Thanks,

    • Tammy,

      I haven’t seen a dog sneeze in response to a bee sting, but it wouldn’t surprise me at all. In fact, it seems kind of logical.

  • Rusty,
    I thought the same thing. If we sneeze from allergic reactions why can’t dogs or cats or whatever animal. I think she got stung in the nose while sniffing flowers. It scared me to death because she is so tiny and she sneezed uncontrollably for an hour. She is better now, the sneezing has almost ceased completely, yet shitzhus do sneeze A LOT, due to their tiny pushed in noses the vet said, and she also snorts like a little pig. We adopted her 3 months ago, she was abused very badly. Two days ago, I really realized how much I love her, she had some pretty bad habits when we first got her. Now she is doing better. Thanks for your reply ?

  • I may have killed a bee while trying to save a bee!

    Got to work and a bee was floating in a bucket soaking wet and barely clinging to a leaf. I put my hand under the leaf thinking I could lift it out and get him dry but her lil stinger was hanging off the back of the leaf and a felt a very slight prick but not really a sting I hope. After I blew in her a bit she flew to me hovered and flew off so I was relieved she didn’t die from the water or the sting but was disappointed when I heard that they can live for a while after a sting so she still might die.

    If her stinger didn’t imbed in my hand is there a chance I didn’t kill her?

    • Cal,

      You don’t say what kind of bee it was. Only honey bees die after a sting, and only if the stinger is pulled out. If the stinger didn’t embed in your skin, she’s probably fine.

  • I was recently stung on the leg/calf while attending my bees. Although it was an annoyance at the time, the pain quickly left my leg, only to be replacement with a rather large (3-4″ red swollen area) with three blisters in the center. I have not been bitten a lot, but this particular bite was the 2nd in less than a week.

    I have a “itch” stick that I use for all bites/stings/itches. The stick is a chap-stick type apparatus containing tea-tree oil, eucalyptus, bees wax and a carrier oil. It works! The itch is gone so no scratching, but the swelling and blistering in particular were surprising.
    After the blister(s) dried, I was still left with the very dried purplish spots even weeks later. These spots were removed with some vigorous scrubbing with an abrasive pad.

    Did I consider this a allergic reaction – not really. There were no adverse medical reactions to breathing or any other type of critical response. I will show a photo of these blisters to my physician the next time I see him to get his response. Has anyone experienced a similar reaction to a bee bite?

  • SO I’m a furry and I left my orange-yellowish fursuit outside after washing it (its name honeycomb) and I saw bees swarming it. Can you help? I don’t wanna hurt the bees how to do I get it back ):

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