Why do Bees Sting People?

R. Kayne

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.

Beekeepers avoid stings by wearing protective suits and carrying smokers to cover alarm pheromones released by worker bees.
Beekeepers avoid stings by wearing protective suits and carrying smokers to cover alarm pheromones released by worker bees.

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.

A bee's stinger may be removed using a tweezers.
A bee's stinger may be removed using a tweezers.

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 may be irritating, but it won't be harmful unless a person is allergic.
A single bee sting may be irritating, but it won't be harmful unless a person is allergic.

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.

Beekeepers need to use caution while harvesting honey.
Beekeepers need to use caution while harvesting honey.

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Discussion Comments


If a bee gets too close to me, I usually blow air at it, hard, using my mouth. They seem to get the message.


Why do bees bother us when we are not near the hive?


When we were getting out of the apartment swimming pool, my brother got stung by one but he did not do anything to harm it. Why did it still sting him?


I got rid of bees and the, hive but 10 or so still are hanging around. How do you get rid of the ones that were off collecting at the time?


More people die of being struck by lightning each year than by being stung by honeybees.


Well I pick up solitary bees all the time when they are on my friends or in the room and whatnot but I've never been stung. Why is that? I'm not saying I want to be stung but I'm just curious.


Well this is my third sting since school started I do not do anything to attract the bees. But they keep stinging me. I use all unscented products do not wear yellow.


Well, I got stung today. What a great way to start the school year! Though I don't know why it stung me.


Can a bee detect fear and thus sting someone just because they are frightened?


My mom says that the reason why a bee follows you is because it thinks you are a flower.


Why would a bee sting you if you do not harm or threaten harm to it? Why would it just fly up to you and sting you?


Got stung by a bee earlier, and I was wondering what the hell the little ball on the end of the stinger was. Thanks for clearing that up.


Got stung by a bloody bee when i was just walking to work! What the hell!


Why was one of my field workers stung three times in the past two weeks?


My granddaughter is *always* the one of the group who gets stung. One year on a camping trip, it was seven times over three days. What is it -- the smell?


when is the best time for a beekeeper to collect his honey?


If you just walk away it might follow for some distance but will lose interest when you've moved far enough off. A bee is more likely to follow, and maybe for a longer distance, if you've swatted at it.


If you move out of the way why does the bee continue to follow you? How likely will it be to sting you if it is following you???

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