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.
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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.
Honey Bee Suite