stings

Powerful and toxic honey bee venom is injected, not sprayed

The odor coming from a hot hive is likely alarm pheromone.

Alarm pheromone is often released when honey bees sting. The scent of the pheromone may be mistaken for venom, but venom is odorless.

Inside: A popular myth suggests that honey bees can spray their venom, but they can’t. Instead, bee venom is injected only, a system that works painfully well.

Can honey bees spray their venom?

Yesterday, a beekeeper asked if honey bees can spray venom. I had never heard of honey bees spraying anything, so I began researching. Turns out, this is a common question.

The beekeeper who wrote to me explained she had been inspecting a hive alongside her mentor when her eye began burning. “I didn’t smell anything in the air, but suddenly I got a splash of something in my left eye. At first, I thought, ‘Oh, that’s just sweat, but it started burning and burning. In the end, I took off running and put the hose onto my eye and let it run, then leapt in the shower and rinsed my eyes out for ages.’”

Later, her mentor said the bees were spraying venom and he could smell it.

Bee venom is odorless and injected

I spent several hours researching this question. The papers I could find all agreed on four basic things.

  • Bee venom is odorless.

  • Honey bees have no sprayers, only needles, meaning their venom is always injected into the victim.

  • What people smell is not venom but alarm pheromone.

  • Alarm pheromone has a distinctive odor, but it isn’t sprayed either (which is why bees must fan the secretion with their wings to disperse it.)

Alarm pheromone smells bad

Since alarm pheromone gets released at the same time as stings, people probably confuse the scent of the pheromone with the venom. When you get stung, you often smell the pheromone.

When a honey bee stings something it perceives as a threat, it releases alarm pheromone to alert other bees to the danger. The alarm pheromone communicates to colony members that a threat is nearby, thus arousing defensive behavior. But the pheromone itself is an odor, not a defensive weapon.

With honey bees, the alarm odor is also powerful enough to alert predators (beekeepers in this case) that they should leave. Now.

Although many people compare the scent of alarm pheromone to the scent of bananas, they often stress that it isn’t pleasant. The bananas are not freshly ripe but more or less “off.”

Can alarm pheromone trigger an allergic reaction?

Several sources suggested that while an allergic reaction to alarm pheromone is not common, it’s not impossible.

The exact composition of alarm pheromone can vary by location and subspecies of bee, but basically, it contains:

  • Isopentyl acetate, which has a strong, fruity odor resembling bananas. It attracts and alerts other bees to a potential threat.

  • 2-Heptanone, which has a pungent, slightly unpleasant odor and is released when a honey bee is under stress or perceives danger.

  • Other volatile compounds such as isopentanol, hexyl acetate, octyl acetate, and multiple fatty acid esters. These compounds contribute to the overall scent and effectiveness of the alarm pheromone.

So if a person was allergic to any component of alarm pheromone, it could, in theory, produce an allergic reaction.

The reaction could be unrelated

One source suggested that the beekeeper could have had an allergic reaction to something else in the hive. Maybe a certain pollen or something in the smoker, or perhaps she briefly touched her eye through her veil. If her glove had venom on it, it could have transferred by simply brushing her eye.

So although we still don’t know what caused the red and itchy eyes, we know that a honey bee didn’t spray it there. So yes, honey bees sting, honey bees bite, honey bees head-butt, but as far as anyone knows, they don’t have little sprayers.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

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About Me

I backed my love of bee science with a bachelor’s degree in Agronomic Crops and a master’s in Environmental Studies. I write extensively about bees, including a current column in American Bee Journal and past columns in Two Million Blossoms and Bee Craft. I’ve endured multiple courses in melittology and made extensive identifications of North American bees for iNaturalist and other organizations. My master beekeeper certificate issued from U Montana. I’m also an English nerd. More here.

16 Comments

  • Well, drops of sweat in the eye do burn, sweat being the only thing I’ve had drip into my eye while inspecting honey bees. Would a drop of venom in the eye burn as much as venom injected in the skin? But I would think a bee would have to be inside your veil in order to fling a drop of venom off the tip of her stinger and into your eye, not technically sprayed. It doesn’t seem impossible, just unlikely.

    • But if your veil was laying against your face, the bee could get your eye. I know I’ve been “kinda sorta” stung when the bee reached me through the veil but not enough to deliver the entire syringe. But like you, I don’t know if venom is irritating if it’s not injected.

  • Sorry, have to disagree with you on this one, Rusty. There may be no academic research in venom spraying, but I have experienced it on multiple occasions, and have talked to others with the same experience.

    I should admit to being a bit of a rebel when it comes to smoking the bees, and a slow learner, having to figure things out by my stubborn self. In my infinite wisdom during my first five years of beekeeping, I had often gone into packed colonies in July during dearth on a cloudy day with no smoker to do splits and other invasive maneuvers. Tai Chi type moves did not work well, as you can imagine. I got the bees rather worked up, and so many would be clinging to my veil that it was hard to see out. Brushing the bees off was ineffective, as they clung on all the tighter. I felt like an unwanted balled queen protected by a fragile cage. Their wings were going full speed, creating a breeze and blowing the noxious stuff onto my face and eyes. I couldn’t stop sneezing, my eyes watered and my ears burned. Not a single sting, but I was a wreck. This happened multiple times in varying degrees of intensity (did I mentioned that I was a slow learner?), until I learned a hack to avoid the focused attention in the veil. “Use smoke,” do you say? Heck, no! I spray-painted the FRONT on the fencer-type veil white, let it dry, then reentered the fray. After pissing off the bees, they now only clung to the SIDES of the veil where the screen was still black, and my EARS were the only part that burned. Victorious! I could live with that, and added 1:1 sugar spray to my defense arsenal with decent success. I light up the smoker a bit more these days.

    Just for the record, I live in the north with normally calm bees. I just didn’t like to use smoke when I really should have. My most recent veil is not spray painted white, and I get an occasional pissed off lady clinging and fanning venom onto me. My nose starts running, but nothing like that intense reaction I described earlier. The more pissed off bees, the higher the quantity of venom. These days, I try to not piss off too many at one time.

    Of course, Ive learned over the years to not be a complete idiot… Err, well, I suppose I’m still at least partially a fool when my smoker dies out and I’m still flinging boxes at dusk trying to beat a rainstorm. Ahh, the joys of beekeeping- never a dull moment.

    • CiCi,

      No, you’re saying the same thing when you write: “Their wings were going full speed, creating a breeze and blowing the noxious stuff onto my face and eyes. I couldn’t stop sneezing, my eyes watered and my ears burned.” They were using their wings to fan, not a sprayer. They don’t have sprayers. And the stuff they are fanning is pheromone, not venom.

    • It seems as though all those fanning wings would also propel residual pollen into the air, potentially causing an allergic reaction consisting of sneezing and watering eyes.

      • Trouble is, most of the classic allergy-causing pollens are not the pollens bees carry. Most (not all) of the allergy pollens are very fine wind-blown pollen grains that don’t require animal-mediated pollination. And since the plants don’t require animal pollination the flowers don’t have bee-attractive features.

    • Laura,

      When I was researching this question, I was amazed at the number of insects and larger animals that spray things. Some spray venom, some emit warning odors (like skunks), some mark territory, and some call for mates. Spraying seems to be alive and well in the animal kingdom.

  • Hello Rusty. Possible bee installation problem. I installed 4 3-lb packages yesterday afternoon. I didn’t “thump n’ dump,” just placed the open packages near a fully open entrance on each hive. The queens were inside each hive, wedged between frames, candy cork off, candy side up.

    Well I came outside to feed the hives 1:1, and lo and behold, most of the bees seem to be in one hive only. I opened 2 of the “quieter” hives, and there are only 20-30 bees on the queen cages.

    I think I should have placed the entire package into each hive. That’s where I may have messed up.

    What should I do? Move frames from the “busy” hive to the other ones? All the equipment is interchangeable.

    David

    • David,

      Okay, this is a mess, as you know. The problem comes from the way packages are put together and sold. Bees from many colonies are dumped together in big bins. Then a funnel goes into the package boxes which sit on a scale until the right weight is reached. Then a queen from the queen-rearing operation is added. In the end, no one is related to anyone else.

      How cohesive the group is depends on how long they’ve been together (One day? Five days?) and the strength of the queen’s pheromones.

      I assume that the one queen has a stronger or more attractive scent than the others and they all went there. It can happen even if you dump the bees into a hive, but it will be worse if they are outside the hives and have never been inside them. Once one group goes in a hive, those bees will start fanning pheromone to tell the rest of the bees where “home” is.

      I think your idea is the best one. Divide the frames of bees as equally as possible into the three hives, making sure the queens in the two empty hives are caged (or else they may be killed by bees that don’t recognize the queens’ scent). Then you need to lock them in the hives with syrup for a few days while they adjust to the new queen. If you don’t confine them, they will just fly back to the big hive.

      This will be messy and difficult and I don’t even know if you can succeed. Use screened bottoms and screen the entrances so they get fresh air. After 4-5 days, you’ll need to open the hives and see what happens. All you need is enough bees to establish a colony in each one. For sure, many will go back to the original hive, but it’s worth a try.

      If anyone out there has a better idea, please let us know ASAP.

  • Rusty,

    I may have done a boo boo.

    I installed 4 packages yesterday afternoon in CT.

    I placed 4 queens wedged in the frames of each box. I took the cork out of the candy end of the cages, and orientated then candy side up.

    For some strange reason, even though I didn’t want to “thump and dump,” I didn’t place the packages inside the hives. I placed them outside them, no entrance reducers on. I figured the bees would march on in, which they actually were doing, to a certain extent.

    I came out to the hives this morning around 8:30 am, and most of the bees are in one hive.

    What should I do?

    David

    • David,

      See my answer above. Also, the bees that marched into the hive originally hadn’t yet done orientation flights. So when the bees go outside to do their flights, they can easily get confused because they don’t know which hive is theirs.

  • All I know is that I had my sweat band on and that’s why, when I felt a drop of something go in my left eye I blinked hard a couple of times, thinking wow, well, my sweat band must not be working well – and the next thing, my left eye was on fire. I must say that the bees at this time were really VERY defensive and flying at our heads like nobody’s business – not a typical reaction from this hive (they’re normally gentle). I hadn’t been touching my veil or doing anything – in fact, with the bees flying at my face, the last thing I would have done would be to touch my face or eyes, which would bring the veil right to my face/eyes and then they WOULD be able to sting through it. This drop of something going into my eye happened literally a couple of seconds after the other beekeeper said “smell that? they’re spraying” and as I’d never heard of this before, I didn’t know what he meant – I thought he meant someone was spraying something nearby or the sprinklers somewhere were going off – as my eye got progressively more “burning”, I left the area to get away from the bees before I started rubbing it, and that made it worse, and I ran off to hose my eye off. UP to that point, we had not been using a smoker, so it’s very possible that it was the alarm pheremone that was in the air (the smell) – but how to explain the drop of whatever it was getting into my eye? [On this day, earlier in the morning, there HAD been a swarm from this hive that settled in a tree, and when we caught that swarm to put in a nuc, we noticed there was no queen – and the swarm returned to the tree – that’s why we decided to look inside the actual hive to see if there was anything unusual going on. Why the bees might swarm without a queen.] I didn’t smell anything though, I can only go by what he said just before this happened. I hosed my eye out but that didn’t help a lot – I went and leapt in the shower, and stood under it with my eye open for about 10 minutes…. helped a little more – but it burned. It wasn’t just red and irritated, but swollen, massively bloodshot and my eye streamed solidly.

    The next day my eye was really puffy and swollen, and looked almost exactly the same as it had been when I got stung last year on the eye brow and just below my eye (while I was scooping a couple of bees out of the canal) – and it took about 3 – 4 days to go down. So it was not a matter of me pushing my veil up against my face and getting stung through the veil – a droplet of SOMETHING went into my eye. Interestingly enough, I asked a friend of mine and she researched the subject and found an article in France that had this in it (roughly translated): https://www-numericbees-com.translate.goog/fr/apiculture/apiculture-lenfumoir-a-abeilles/?_x_tr_sl=auto&_x_tr_tl=en&_x_tr_hl=en&_x_tr_pto=wapp

    and one paragraph said this: ” However, this is not the only use that the bee can make of it. Indeed this one can by straightening its abdomen extract its sting and express a drop of venom at the end of this one. Then it flaps its wings to spray the liquid. In doing so, it generates an alarm signal for its congeners, who are quick to do the same and pursue the enemy. The target once stung is marked by the smell of this venom which excites the aggressiveness of the bees, which come to sting in the same place. ”

    I’ve done countless inspections, helped with tons of live bee removals etc., been around angry bees many times (although usually with smokers lit), and this is the first time this has ever happened. Whatever it was, I take my hat off to these remarkable little creatures defending their family – they are truly amazing, and while it took me a few days to smile at them again, I admire and love them more than ever. That bee hive has gone back to being very calm and gentle again, although to be on the safe side, we will be requeening it.

    • Joanna,

      I’m looking into this subject further because I want to know more. I did run into a piece that said honey bees cannot deliberately express a drop of venom without actually stinging. Anyway, I’ll keep digging.

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