You may have heard that bees die when they sting, but is it true? The answer is that it depends on the type of bee. Only female honey bees die when they sting. Other bees and wasps can (and usually do) sting again.
Why Only Female Honey Bees Die
Only female bees sting. Male honey bees closely resemble females, but they are a bit bigger, have slightly larger eyes, have different antennae, and lack stingers. Female bumble bees, Africanized bees, and other bees that sting multiple times have relatively smooth stingers. When they sting, it’s relatively easy to withdraw the stinger from skin. Honey bee stingers are serrated, with back-slanting spines like a harpoon or fishhook. The hold in skin is too strong for the honey bee, so its abdomen literally tears off when the bee withdraws, leaving a lethal wound. The most likely reason honey bees haven’t evolved smooth stingers is that the untimely death of a few female workers doesn’t compromise the survival of the hive, which contains 10,000 to 80,000 bees.
Why Can’t Male Bees and Wasps Sting?
What we call a “stinger” is actually an ovipositor, which is the apparatus bees and wasps use to lay eggs. Males don’t lay eggs, thus they lack ovipositors and can’t sting.
There are a few reasons why bees and wasps use venom. Some use it to paralyze a host so they can lay eggs inside it. The venom protects against threats. It also acts as an antimicrobial agent, protecting larval bees from disease.
While male wasps can’t technically sting, some have barbed abdomens. These wasps can jab you. The initial pain feels like a sting, but there’s no venom injection, so the injury heals quickly.
What to Do If a Honey Bee Stings
It’s easy to tell a honey bee sting from other bee and wasp stings because you’ll see the stinger and venom sacs in your skin. The venom sacs continue to pump venom into the wound even after they detach. So, minimize the amount of venom by immediately removing the stinger. Scraping off the stinger with a stiff, flat object like a credit card works best. But, if you don’t have something like that, scrape away the stinger with the edge of a fingernail or use your finger to pinch the stinger out of the skin. Recent research indicates it doesn’t actually matter whether you scrape or pinch a stinger, but delays in removing the stinger increase the injury.
After stinger removal, treatment depends on your reaction to the venom. Here are the treatment steps for a person who isn’t allergic to stings:
- Remove the stinger.
- Wash the area with soap and water.
- Apply ice or a cold pack to reduce swelling.
- If necessary, use over-the-counter pain medication, an antihistamine, or hydrocortisone cream to reduce pain, itching, and swelling. Usually, pain and swelling go away in a few hours.
If you are swarmed by bees and receive multiple stings, it’s a good idea to seek prompt medical attention even if you’re not allergic to bee venom.
If you’re allergic, removing the stinger is still the first step because this limits the venom dose. Then, seek immediate medical attention. Symptoms of an allergic reaction include:
- Difficulty breathing
- Weak, rapid pulse
- Loss of consciousness
How to Avoid Bee Stings
Of course, you don’t need to worry about whether or not the bee dies when it stings if it never stings in the first place! Neither bees nor wasps are inherently aggressive. They approach people because water, minerals, motion, scents, or colors attract them.
- Don’t swat at a bee or wasp. Stay calm and the insect will leave on its own.
- Avoid wearing perfume or scented lotion.
- Don’t wear brightly colored clothing.
- Distance yourself from sweet food and drinks.
- Baracchi, David; Francese, Simona; Turillazzi, Stefano (2011). “Beyond the Antipredatory Defence: Honey Bee Venom Function as a Component of Social Immunity.” Toxicon. 58 (6-7): 550-557. doi:10.1016/j.toxicon.2011.08.017
- Moreau, Sébastien J. M. (2013). “It Stings a Bit but It Cleans Well: Venoms of Hympenoptera and their antimicrobial potential.” J. Insect Physiol. 59(2): 186-204. doi:10.1016/j.jinsphys.2012.10.005
- Visscher, P. Kirk; Vetter, Richard S.; Camazine, Scott (1996). “Removing Bee Stings.” The Lancet. 348(9023): 301-302. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(96)01367-0