If you’ve ever walked through your lawn or a meadow and been stung by a bee, after you recover from the shock and the pain, you probably wonder why bees sting at all…
After all, you’re just walking along minding your own business; you weren’t bothering the bees or trying to steal their honey. Why did it sting you?
Everyone knows how important bees are to the ecosystem and to our own agriculture by now, but it doesn’t make it any easier to take a bee sting. So, why do bees sting people?
Bees will generally only sting in defense of themselves if handled or trapped, or in defense of their hive if you get too close or disturb it.
And that’s pretty much it. Honey bees, unlike other stinging insects, only get one shot with their stinger and they die after delivering it. That being said, other kinds of bees can sting repeatedly.
If you are worried about being stung by a bee, or just fascinated by the topic, keep reading and I’ll tell you everything you need to know.
Bees Sting in Defense of Themselves or Their Hive
The only thing you really need to know about these stinging is that they will sting in defense of themselves and their hive. And that’s really it.
But going beyond this simple answer and understanding bee psychology will better prepare us to avoid being stung while still appreciating the bees.
For instance, even if a bee is gathering pollen out in the wild and you are nearby, it probably isn’t going to pay you any attention most of the time.
It definitely won’t go out of its way to sting you because you aren’t threatening it. The bee just wants to do its job and return home.
However, if you were to deliberately or accidentally trap or crush the bee it will attempt to sting in a last-ditch attempt to save its life.
Similarly, should you stray too close to the hive, where they store all of the honey they’ve worked so hard for and close to the many young inside, they will grow agitated and before long they will sting you. If you disturb the hive directly they may sting you right away.
Avoiding these two occurrences means you are unlikely to be stung.
Can All Bees Sting?
Pretty much all bees, across species, can sting. However looking at honey bees, only the females can sting at all, meaning the queen and her worker servants.
The males, called drones, don’t even have stingers.
Likewise, looking at bees of other species like carpenter bees that routinely drill holes into your deck or siding (often called bumble bees by mistake), the larger females can sting but the smaller males cannot.
However, concerning carpenter bees, it is the males that usually act aggressive, flying up in front of your face, and jinking back and forth to intimidate you into leaving them alone!
But unless you are an expert at bee identification and feeling particularly bold, it’s in your best interest to assume that any bee can sting you.
When is a Bee Most Likely to Sting You?
A bee is most likely to sting when it is trapped or when it is received a defense order via pheromones from the hive or from another bee that has stung recently.
In the first case, if you’ve ever stepped on a bee barefoot or tried to handle one carelessly, you’ll know that they will sting when they feel like they are being crushed or held against their will.
This happens by accident, too: if a bee gets trapped by your hair, under your collar, or by other clothing they might sting you in a panic.
The other instance is when bees are turned to defense mode by pheromones which are released by other bees that are defending the hive or the queen herself, or released when another bee stings or dies violently.
After detecting this pheromone, a bee is much more likely to sting anything that it identifies as “not a bee”, and it will, in fact, home in on pheromone deposits left behind by other stinging bees or by the crushed corpse of a bee.
Can Bees Sting Repeatedly?
Honey bees cannot sting repeatedly. It’s a well-known fact that a honey bee can sting only one time and stinging is a kamikaze attack for them…
When a honey bee worker stings, her barbed stinger will typically lodge inside the target and anchor itself.
As she pulls away, the entire stinger apparatus complete with its venom sac will be left behind.
This will fatally wound the bee that will die shortly thereafter, and also do more damage to the target because the stinger will continue to pump venom.
That’s why it is so important to remove the stinger from a honey bee as soon as you can after being stung. More on that in a moment.
Don’t Mistake Other Stinging Insects for Honey Bees!
Now, while it’s it true that honey bees can sting only one time, other stinging insects including other species of bee can sting repeatedly.
So, if you are unfortunate enough to ignore yellow jackets or carpenter bees, the stings can pile up with great rapidity.
This can be a medically significant or even life-threatening event, so don’t assume that just because a few “bees” popped you a couple of times you are in the clear.
What Should You Do to Avoid Being Stung?
The very best thing you can do to avoid being stung by bees is to keep an eye out for them and avoid accidentally stepping on them or disturbing them.
Even if these are flying around, if you don’t try to handle them and don’t come too close to their nest, they will make it a point to leave you alone, although accidents can and do happen.
Also, if you are in an area with known bee activity, avoid wearing bright colors that could be mistaken for flowers, floral patterns which bees will visually recognize and be attracted to, and sweet-smelling perfumes or other products.
All of these things will attract them, and though they might not sting you out of anger when they show up and find there’s no nectar or pollen, it does increase the chances of a negative interaction.
Also, if you know where a beehive is, stay well away from it and make no assumptions about the minimum safe distance.
Different bee species are more or less aggressive about defending the hive perimeter, and in the case of killer bees they might go off on a hair trigger and pursue intruders for a considerable distance.
If you are forced to deal with bees for any reason, you’ll definitely want to invest in bee-protective clothing including a hood or screen and the training to wear it properly.
What’s the Best Way to Deal with a Bee Sting?
If you are stung by a honey bee, the very first thing you need to do is get away from the area where you were stung.
Keep your wits about you, pay attention and move away from any other bees in the area.
You are worried about triggering a response from a nearby hive, but even individual nearby bees will be prompted to sting if they smell the pheromones.
After that, check the sting site to see if the bee’s stinger remains; it will look like a black strand or splinter potentially with a small, pale colored bulbous bit on the end- that’s the venom sac.
You want to pluck that the stinger out as quickly as possible using your fingernails, tweezers, or any other convenient tool.
Note that the old advice about never pinching the stinger out with fingers, fingernails or tweezers is not valid: recent studies have shown it doesn’t squeeze more venom into you.
However, leaving the stinger in longer will result in increasing envenomation, so get the thing out ASAP by any means necessary.
Next, you should clean the sting area with soap and water to prevent infection, then apply an ice compress or take an over-the-counter antihistamine to reduce itching, swelling and pain.
You can also take an over-the-counter pain reliever to help if it’s really smarting.
Multiple Bee Stings Can Trigger Allergic Reactions!
If you are allergic to bee stings, treat even a single sting as a medical emergency and act accordingly.
But, even if you know you’re not allergic to bee stings and get stung and especially if you take multiple stings you need to pay attention to your condition:
If you notice any shortness of breath, hives or blotchy patches appearing elsewhere on your body, any pins and needles, itching or burning, dizziness or weakness taking hold, then you are probably having an allergic reaction to the bee venom.
Note that multiple stings can produce an allergic reaction even in people that do not ordinarily have allergic reactions to bee stings!
If this occurs, you need to dart yourself with an EpiPen as quickly as possible and seek medical attention at once!
Tom has lived and worked on farms and homesteads from the Carolinas to Kentucky and beyond. He is passionate about helping people prepare for tough times by embracing lifestyles of self-sufficiency.