- Honey bees can and do sting, but only when defending themselves or their hive.
- Honey bees generally sting when warned by fellow hive members, are in particularly stressful situations, or when the hive becomes overcrowded.
- If you are stung by a honey bee, best practice is to carefully remove the stinger, wash the area with soap and water, ice the wound, and take over-the-counter pain medications as needed.
Everything to Know About a Honey Bee's Sting
Caring for and protecting honey bees is essential. From pollinating our food crops to producing delicious honey that can benefit us in several ways, they contribute a lot to our world and the health of our planet. That said, a lot of people are scared of bees because they’re afraid of getting stung.
Yet, should you be afraid? In this article, we address everything you need to know about bee stings.
Can Honey Bees Sting?
Yes, honey bees can and do sting. However, they typically only sting to defend themselves or the hive when they sense a threat.
Honey bees are not usually predatory or aggressive. They mostly keep to themselves and don’t go looking for trouble — and that’s not surprising since worker honey bees die when they sting just once.
Honey bees have a barbed stinger with an attached venom sac, both connected to the abdomen. When they sting, the honey bee stinger’s barb buries itself in the victim's skin and tears away from the bee’s body, taking the venom sac and other parts of the bee along with it. Unfortunately, this is a deadly mission that kills the bee.
While all this is happening, the stinging bee sends off alarm pheromone signals to alert other bees in the colony to the presence and location of the threat. Thanks to this advanced threat alert system, the victim may find themselves with multiple stings.
Which Bees Are Most Likely To Sting?
Female honey bees (worker bees) are most likely to sting. Ultimately, it’s their job to protect the hive from intruders. If you ever observe a beehive, you’ll probably see many workers outside the entrance on guard duty. Whether the impending threat is a hornet or a human, worker bee guards will not hesitate to sting if needed.
Which Bees Can’t Sting?
Male drone honey bees, on the other hand, can’t sting. They only make up a small fraction of the hive (there are typically just a few hundred drones compared to tens of thousands of workers) but don’t generally leave the hive either.
Can Queen Bees Sting?
The queen technically can sting. But they have smooth stingers compared to the worker bee’s barbed stinger. This allows the queen to sting multiple times.
However, a queen honey bee will rarely sting a human — she lives the vast majority of her life inside the hive, with an entire army of worker bees to protect her. She mostly only uses her stinger against other rival queen bees during the queen selection process (which you can learn more about here!).
Do Honey Bees Always Die When They Sting?
Honey bees don’t always die when they sting. It depends on what they sting. When a honey bee stings a human or another animal with skin that a barbed stinger could get caught in, it will die.
But if they sting another insect — like a wasp trying to break into the hive — they can come out with their stinger intact, ready to serve another day.
Do All Types of Bees Sting?
There are over 20,000 species of bees, and most of them can’t sting at all. Of the bees that can sting, like female bumblebees and female carpenter bees, it’s uncommon for them to do so. In fact, most bees are peaceful, avoiding confrontation unless absolutely necessary.
Top Reasons Honey Bees Sting
Here are some major reasons honey bees might go so far as to sting:
- Defending the Hive: A colony works all year to forage pollen and nectar to produce honey and sustain the hive. Plus, they must protect the queen and any young they’re rearing. So, any intruders to the hive will have to go through the worker guard bees first.
- Alert From a Fellow Hive Member: The pheromones released when a honey bee stings tells the other bees in the colony the location of the threat, which can cause them to target the threat, too.
Stressful Situations: When honey bees experience stressful situations, they may be more likely to sting. What kind of stress could cause this agitated reaction? Anything that affects the colony's well-being, from the hive being relocated by a beekeeper to extreme weather such as drought.
Other possible stressors include:
- Varroa mites and other pests
- Honey theft
- Not having a queen in the hive
- Hot and humid weather
- Mishandling by beekeepers
- Aggressive Queen: If a queen bee becomes aggressive, the colony may become more aggressive in reaction. This is because the colony takes behavioral cues from the queen (there are pheromones in play here, too). Not only that — the queen gives birth to the entire colony, so there may be some genetic component to this more aggressive behavior.
- A Crowded Colony: If a colony gets overcrowded with high numbers (think upwards of 80,000 bees), more guard bees will be posted up at the hive's entrance. Intruders will have many more stings to contend with if things go south.
At Manukora, we employ ethical beekeeping practices. We don’t shift our hives around or put the bees under unnecessary stress, we keep hives small, and we ensure there’s always plenty of honey set aside for the bees to eat. When beekeepers avoid unnecessary intervention, honey bees can exist happily and healthily.
What Happens If You’re Stung?
When a honey bee stings, she leaves her barbed stinger in the victim's skin. This stinger is designed to be difficult to remove. Soon after the sting, the attached venom sac will deliver venom called apitoxin to the wound.
Bee sting symptoms can range in severity from mild to extreme. Most people have relatively mild and manageable reactions. However, a few people may have severe honey bee sting reactions if they’re allergic to bee venom or get stung multiple times.
Mild Reaction Symptoms:
These symptoms typically clear up in a few hours to one day.
- Sharp pain at the sting site
- Swollen, itchy, and red skin, often with a welt forming around the sting
Moderate Reaction Symptoms:
With a moderate sting reaction, symptoms may take five to 10 days to resolve.
- Severe redness of the skin
- Swelling at the sting site that can increase for up to 48 hours
Severe, Allergic Reaction Symptoms:
- Skin issues: Hives, flush, paleness, itching
- Dizziness: Fainting, loss of consciousness
- Breathing: Difficulty breathing, swollen tongue and throat
- Digestive: Vomiting, diarrhea, nausea
- Pulse: Rapid yet weak pulse
For those who are allergic, bee stings can be deadly. People who have had one allergic reaction to a bee sting have a 25 to 65 percent chance of going into anaphylaxis the next time they’re stung. Some may see a doctor or allergist for preventative care, such as allergy shots.
A severe reaction can also happen when a person is stung by multiple honey bees, especially if they’re stung by many bees. In this case, the victim may experience headache, nausea, vertigo, dizziness, diarrhea, convulsions, fever, or fainting.
What Should You Do If You’re Stung By a Honey Bee?
First of all, try not to panic. We know that is easier said than done, but panicking could cause more honey bees to sense you as a threat and attack, which is the opposite of what you want.
Instead, take a deep breath, and follow these steps:
Remove the stinger. You can remove the stinger by gently scraping it out of the skin with your fingernail or a piece of gauze. Avoid using tweezers or squeezing the skin to remove the stinger, as this can release more bee venom into the wound.
Leave the area where you were stung and go inside to avoid further stings.
Wash the sting site using gentle soap and water.
- Ice the sting to reduce swelling. About 10 to 15 minutes at one time should be sufficient. Also, make sure you place a towel in between the ice and your skin!
If you experience moderate to severe sting symptoms, such as dizziness, nausea, difficulty breathing, hives, or severe redness or swelling that spreads beyond the sting site, seek immediate medical attention.
Best Ways To Avoid Honey Bee Stings
There are several ways to lessen the probability of being stung by a honey bee, such as:
Covering the body with protective clothing during peak bee foraging seasons (spring and summer).
Being mindful around flowering plants as you may run into foraging bees.
Remaining calm and avoid sudden movements if you happen to see a honey bee.
- Not swatting at a honey bee. If you have to remove one from your body, gently brush it away.
- Wearing clean, light-colored clothing without heavy patterns, and avoiding wearing heavily scented personal hygiene products like perfumes and soaps, if you plan on being around a beehive.
Honey bees sting to protect themselves or the hive from real or perceived threats. Yet, they’re certainly not looking for confrontation and will usually keep to themselves unless provoked.
The stakes are high for honey bees — if they use their stinger on a human, they will almost certainly die.
To protect yourself and the bees, take appropriate safety precautions outdoors and consider supporting ethical honey companies that put bee health first.
Check out our blog for more articles like this about honey bees!