There are roughly 20,000 species of bees throughout the world, though when we speak of bees most people think of honeybees or bumblebees. These species are social bees that live in hives or colonies and are not generally aggressive. The only time bees sting is when an intruder, be it animal or human, comes too close to a nest, disturbs it, or physically harms a bee. The threatened bee will not only sting in defense, but also release an “alarm pheromone” to attract other bees, signaling them to join in the attack.
Honeybees are responsible for the characteristic wax hives we associate with bees and beekeeping. Hives have highly organized social structures. A single queen is at the heart of every hive, surrounded by female worker bees. Worker bees serve different functions in different stages of their lives. These bees start off feeding larvae and cleaning the hive, progress to building the honeycomb, and eventually become foragers. Though queen bees and worker bees sting, male bees or drones do not possess stingers.
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Because worker bees will release an alarm pheromone if threatened, beekeepers are very careful to avoid accidentally crushing or harming bees when harvesting honey. Many beekeepers wear protective clothing including gloves, a body suit and veiled hat. Some use “bee smokers” to cover up alarm pheromones that might result from working in the hive. Smoke also causes bees to gorge on honey, a natural response to possibly having to move the hive in case of fire.
A single bee sting is not much more than irritating, but when bees sting en masse, the result can be lethal. This is particularly true if the victim is allergic to bee venom, a statistic that applies to roughly 1% of the population. However, for the majority of us it would take roughly 10 bee stings for every pound of body weight to receive a lethal dose of bee venom. An adult weighing 140 pounds would need to receive 1400 stings in an attack, while a child weighing 40 pounds could be at risk with 400 stings.
Worker bees sting only once then die, as the barbed stinger remains lodged in the skin, ripping the bees abdomen away when the bee flies off. Left attached to the topmost portion of the stinger is the venom sac, which can continue to pump venom into the wound for up to 10 minutes. For this reason doctors recommend removing the stinger as soon as possible, though how this is done is important. Pinching, squeezing or tweezing the stinger can empty the venom sac into the stinger, making things worse. Instead stingers should be removed with a sideways “flicking” motion using a credit card, pocketknife blade, or some similar object.
Bumblebee stingers are not barbed, so these bees sting multiple times if threatened. Africanized honeybees are more aggressive than common (European) honeybees, but still only attack when the hive or swarm feels threatened. Like the common honeybee, Africanized bees sting only once then die.
Since bees sting when threatened, the best way to avoid getting stung is to avoid nesting areas. Solitary bees that are gathering pollen normally do not mind being closely observed as long as they aren’t touched or threatened. If a bee flies close, avoid swatting at it and just move away. Should a swarm takes up residence on your property, the best course of action is to call professional bee removers and bring in the pets until the bees are gone.