There is currently no scientific evidence to suggest that bees can sense our fear. Being attacked by a swarm of bees would reduce approximately 100% of people into a state of flailing panic, but it’s not our terror that attracts them.
Instead, a combination of your sudden, jerky movements and chemical signaling between individual bees attracts more stingers. So, understanding how and why bees attack people in swarms will help you to avoid a bee attack and stay calm when confronted with these stinging (but highly beneficial) bugs.
Why do bees attack?
Bees usually attack for one reason, and that’s to defend their hive.
Some species, like the Africanized Honeybee (aka killer bees’, are unreasonably aggressive and are very quick to attack. This cross-bred species (a mix of various European Honeybees and the East African lowland Honeybee) have been known to chase people for up to a quarter of a mile and are responsible for the deaths of around 1000 humans.
Other bee species, like the plain old honeybee, will only bother stinging you if they see you as a threat to their colony.
Why do bees attack people who are afraid of them?
When you first notice a bee bumping up against you, your first reaction is almost certainly to try and swat it away. However, this is the very last thing you should do if you want to avoid stings, as bees pick up on jerky, irregular movements. If they see this happening near the hive, they will perceive you as a threat to their home and go on the attack.
Once bees start stinging, most people start freaking out, slapping and swatting at the air around them. But the more dynamic you are, the greater the threat you pose to their house, queen, food store and babies so, naturally, more bees will join the attack.
At this point, most sensible people run like hell.
Logically, this should be enough to put a stop to the attack – after all, the whole point of those warning stings was to encourage you to move along. Unfortunately, this is often not the case and sometimes people end up with the whole swarm at their heels.
But, if they can’t smell your overpowering fear, why do they continue to give chase?
Bees will still continue chasing you, in part, because honeybees are stimulated to attack by vibrations and carbon dioxide and, when running, you produce plenty of both.
It is also because of the way bees ‘talk’ with one another. Each sting releases a wave of pheromones (a kind of chemical signal) that stimulates other members of the colony to join the attack.
How do bees communicate using pheromones?
Most people know that honeybees (unlike wasps) only get one sting. Their stings are barbed and, once they’ve plunged their stinger into your skin, it sticks there. When the bee flies away, its body is ripped apart and it dies soon after.
What fewer people realize is that this sting releases an alarm pheromone, which sends a chemical signal to other bees in the hive. This alerts other bees to your presence and recruits them into the attack, stimulating more and more bees to sting you. By using their bee-senses to join forces, the whole colony can come together to defend their nest and run you out of town.
It may be called an ‘alarm pheromone,’ but this still doesn’t mean bees can smell your fear. It’s more like they can smell one another’s hatred of you as they move, hive-minded, to defend their home and queen.
Are bee stings dangerous?
One or two bee stings may be painful, but they’re unlikely to cause any lasting harm.
If you suffer multiple stings or have a severe allergic reaction, however, they can be very dangerous. The venom from the stings can trigger a toxic reaction, which may lead to:
- Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea
- Difficulty breathing
- A spinning sensation (vertigo)
- A weakened pulse
- Swelling of the throat and tongue
- Loss of consciousness
How can you avoid a bee attack?
Fear of bees (aka apiphobia) is relatively common, but most bees are harmless, and their stings are easily avoided.
To sting is suicide for a bee and they’d rather you just left quietly. They only use this measure as a last resort, if they think you pose a significant threat to the colony.
You can avoid bee attacks by:
Paying attention to bees bumping into you
Bees won’t immediately attack you, even if they’ve labeled you a potential threat.
First, they’ll bump into you a few times. This is their way of politely asking you to leave. Heed their warning and move on.
It’s a natural instinct to swat at bothersome bugs but this will only encourage bees to sting you.
But if a bee lands on you, gently ‘waft’ it away or, better yet, wait for it to leave of its own accord.
If the worst has happened and you find yourself with an angry swarm on your tail, take the following measures to escape:
Cover your head and face
Bees will usually attack the head and face of their victims, so cover this area as best you can with whatever you have to hand.
Run as fast as possible! Once the swarm no longer thinks you’re a threat to their hive they’ll leave you alone.
Seek shelter immediately
Get indoors as quickly as you can. Avoid jumping, cartoon-bear-style, into water – the bees will simply wait for you to come up for air if you do this.
It’s a common myth that bees smell fear but, fortunately for the apiphobics out there, there’s no evidence to suggest that this is true.
Instead, bees use chemical signals called pheromones to communicate with one another, and ‘alarm pheromones’ are released with every sting. This tells other colony members that you, a potential threat, need to be chased away, and recruits more bees in the attack.
Bees are also more likely to sting people who make sudden, jerky movements so, if a bee lands on you, keep your cool and move on.