Nobody enjoys being stung by a bee. It’s painful, can leave you feeling itchy and uncomfortable for days, and is life-threatening for people with a bee sting allergy. Not all bees sting. Only female bees have stingers, which are a modified ovipositor (egg-laying appendage). Bees also don’t sting for no reason. Bees only sting when they feel threatened in some way, either to defend the nest or defend themselves. Some species are more sensitive than others. However, you can be assured that there are ways to avoid being stung by a bee. Here, we’ll cover why bees sting and how likely one is to sting you, why bee stings hurt, how different bee species’ stinging behavior varies, and how to prevent bee stings.
How likely are bees to sting?
The likelihood of a bee sting depends a lot on your location, scent, clothing, and behavior. Bees (even the much-maligned Africanized honey bee) are fairly predictable creatures. They don’t want to be stepped on, smacked, or squeezed, and they don’t want anything attacking their home. Unless you do one of these things or appear to be doing one of these things, bees are highly unlikely to sting you. If, however, you accidentally step on one, try to swat one away, pinch one, or approach a beehive or nest, that likelihood increases substantially. Social bees can be especially dangerous because they release a pheromone when injured or alarmed that calls nearby bees to attack the threat.
The bees you’re most likely to encounter are honey bees, bumble bees, and carpenter bees. If you were wondering, “Do bumble bees sting?”, the answer is, “Yes.” Coincidentally, that’s also the answer to, “Do honey bees sting?” and “Do carpenter bees sting?”.
A sting from one of these types of bees feels pretty much the same because all bee venom is very similar, though not identical. Proportions may differ slightly by species.
- The major constituent of bee venom is melittin, a compound that destroys cells (including red blood cells) by breaking down their membranes. About half (50-55%) of bee venom is melittin.
- Phospholipase A makes up the next greatest proportion: 10-12%. This is an enzyme that breaks down phospholipids, the polar molecules that are the main components of cell membranes. In addition, phospholipase A destroys red blood cells and emits substances that trigger feelings of pain. Phospholipases are also found in snake venom.
- Around 1-2% of bee venom is hyaluronidase, an enzyme that breaks down barriers to flow within connective tissues, allowing the venom to spread into the body. It is thought that phospholipase A and hyaluronidase are the main allergy triggers within bee venom.
- A neurotoxin called apamin makes up around 3% of bee venom. It is thought to cause minor nerve damage and associated pain.
- Peptide 401, also called MCD peptide, which is about 2% of bee venom, causes inflammation, or bee sting swelling. Histamine, which our bodies release during an allergic reaction, is also present in bee venom, at around 1%. This compound is responsible for itching and inflammation.
- Other compounds make up smaller proportions and either have similar effects to or aid the activity of those compounds detailed above.
The components of bee venom are very potent. When you are stung by a bee, you are only getting a small amount of actual venom. What a bee actually injects with her sting is 88% water and only 12% venom.
While a bumble bee sting feels about the same as a carpenter bee sting or a honey bee sting (1 to 2 out of 4 on the Schmidt sting pain index), bees do not all sting the same way. Honey bees differ in a critical way from bumble bees and carpenter bees. A honey bee sacrifices herself when she chooses to sting. Honey bee stingers are barbed, so they become lodged in the victim’s skin. When the honey bee flies away, her stinger and the attached venom sac are ripped from her body. This injury is mortal. Aside from the death of the bee, this information is important to know if you are ever stung by a honey bee. You must remove the stinger as quickly as possible because as long as it remains in your skin, it will continue to inject venom. Don’t pull it out with tweezers as this will just squeeze extra venom in. It’s best to use a thin, flat surface (e.g., a fingernail or credit card) to flick it out of the skin.
How not to get stung
As mentioned, bees only sting when they feel threatened in some way. Although you may not intend to threaten a bee, it is likely to happen at some point in your life, if it hasn’t already. However, there are ways that you can reduce the chances of getting stung.
- Recall that bees don’t like being stepped on. One of the best ways to avoid a defensive sting in the foot is to always wear shoes when walking around outside. While this won’t keep bees from stinging, it will keep you from feeling it. This is especially true if you have clover or other low-growing flowers in your yard. Bees like clover nectar and can often be found foraging on clover flowers.
- Bees will also respond in kind if they are smacked or swatted. To reduce the risk of reflexively swatting at a bee, it’s best to try not to entice them to fly near you in the first place.
- Don’t wear brightly colored and/or floral clothing. Such attire makes you look more like a flower and make bees more likely to investigate you.
- The same goes for perfumes, colognes, or scented deodorants, soaps, lotions, and hair products, especially floral scents. Bees are always on the hunt for nectar and if you smell like a flower, they’ll want to check you out.
- When you’re eating outside, cover any sugary foods and drinks. You don’t want to find an angry bee in your soda can or fruit bowl.
- Similarly, don’t leave out garbage from sugary foods and drinks. Rinse containers before disposing of them and make sure your garbage and recycling bins have tight-fitting lids.
- If you happen to become the object of a bee’s interest, resist the urge to swat her away. Instead, remain still and wait for her to realize you’re not food. She won’t sting you unless you scare her. Once she’s satisfied that you don’t have anything useful to offer, she’ll fly away. You can lightly blow on a bee to encourage her to leave without being threatening.
- Don’t give bees the chance to become trapped in your car. When it’s parked and when you’re stopped at an intersection, keep the windows rolled up. If one does end up in the car while you’re driving, pull over as soon as it’s safe and roll down the windows to let it out.
- To avoid pinching or squeezing a bee, don’t wear loose clothing. If you have tight cuffs and tucked in shirts, bees can’t fly in and become trapped. Don’t pick bees up. This is likely to be viewed as an attack.
- Finally, give hives and nests a wide berth. If you don’t approach too closely, the bees won’t view you as a potential threat. Monitor your yard for signs of ground nests (e.g., bees flying to and from a specific spot on the ground) and stay away from suspected locations.
If you accidentally find yourself in the vicinity of a hive or nest, especially if bees start to approach you, cover your face and run away. Get indoors so they can’t follow you. Being stung by multiple bees results in a situation called mass envenomation, which can be life-threatening.
It just means that a lot of venom was pumped into you in a short amount of time. If you know you’re going to be near a nest, wear long sleeves and long pants and keep a hat with an insect veil on it with you and put it on when you get close to the bees’ home. Protective clothing and headgear can keep you safe from the stings.
Don’t bother with insect repellent. It doesn’t work on bees.
While bee stings are painful and can be life-threatening to those with allergies, they can be avoided. Bees don’t seek out people to sting and they only sting in defense of themselves or their homes. Honey bees, especially, don’t want to sting you at all because it means certain death. Here, we’ve covered the different types of threats that bees perceive: being stepped on, being swatted, being squeezed, and having their hives or nests attacked. We’ve also detailed ways that you can avoid a sting and/or prevent bees from seeing you as a threat: wear shoes when walking outside, don’t wear brightly colored or floral clothing, avoid scented cosmetics, cover sugary foods and drinks and their used containers, keep your car windows closed, don’t wear loose-fitting clothes, don’t handle bees, and avoid areas where bees nest. These tips should keep you safe from potentially dangerous bee stings. Good luck!