Do bees die after they sting you?

Bees die: Lilac-colored flower with bee, covered with yellow dots, on long single stamen.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Nina Gorenstein in West Lafayette, Indiana, took this image on August 1, 2022. Nina wrote: “A bee covered with pollen grains on a hibiscus flower.” Thank you, Nina! Do bees die after they sting you? Read on.

Do bees die after they sting you?

The honeybee is the only type of bee that dies after stinging you. Only female bees (of all types) sting, because only female bees have stingers. A female honeybee is most likely to sting when it perceives a threat to its hive. When the honeybee is away from the hive and foraging among flowers, it will rarely sting unless someone steps on it or handles it roughly. So, female honeybees that sting die in the act of protecting their home.

Other stinging insects, such as wasps and hornets, don’t die when they sting you. In fact, hornets and wasps can sting you multiple times. Attacking swarms like these can be fatal, even if you’re not allergic.

The much-publicized murder hornet is not particularly dangerous to humans, but they can destroy an entire honeybee hive in a short amount of time.

Why do honeybees die when they sting?

A honeybee’s stinger is made of two barbed lancets. When the bee stings, it can’t retract its stinger and go merrily on its way. When a honeybee stings you, it leaves not only the stinger behind but also part of its digestive tract, muscles and nerves. The bee dies from a massive abdominal rupture.

How can this disemboweling be beneficial to the bee? Well, it’s not beneficial to the individual bee. But it helps protect the hive. That’s because the bee sting keeps attacking you (and, with any luck, keeping you away from the hive) after the bee is dead.

A cluster of nerve cells coordinates the muscles of the detached stinger. First, the barbed shafts move back and forth, digging deeper into your skin. Then, the muscular valves pump toxins from an attached venom sac and deliver it to the wound. This continues for several minutes even after the bee is dead and gone.

It’s a sad end to the bee (and not fun for you either), but it does make sense from an evolutionary perspective. Because the worker bees that defend the hive don’t reproduce, the only way they can ensure their genes are passed on is by protecting the hive and their reproductive relatives inside.

Half of a bee plus long thin thorn-like brown protusion.
This is the part of the honeybee that can remain attached to you after you’re stung. Image via Waugsberg/ Wikimedia Commons.
Dead bee curled up on someone's finger.
This honeybee died defending the hive. Image via Waugsberg/ Wikimedia Commons.

Removing the stinger

Because the stinger continues to work injecting venom into you, you’ll want to remove it quickly. Studies show that it doesn’t matter how you do it. You can try flicking, scraping or pinching it off. Even a few seconds’ delay as you debate how to remove it can have a negative effect.

Person with an elongated red bump on their arm about the length of their thumb.
Remove the stinger as soon as you can to limit the amount of venom that enters your body. Image via Extermpro.

Beware of the swarm

When a bee stings you, it gives off a mixture of alarm pheromones from a gland near its sting chamber. These pheromones excite the other bees in the hive, who will open their mandibles, protrude their stingers and sting anything that moves close to them.

Black and white drawing of cutaway of bee sting parts from venom sac to stinger.
Anatomy of stinging parts of a honeybee. Image via UC Riverside.

Leaving parts behind

The process of leaving behind a body part as a form of defense – in this case, part of the abdomen – is called autotomy. Other examples in the animal kingdom include lizards dropping their tails and crabs leaving their claws behind when they’re threatened.

When is bee season?

Bee season is variable depending on where you live. It depends on the temperature and when flowers bloom in your area. Bees don’t like temperatures below about 55 degrees Fahrenheit (12 degrees C). That’s sleeping weather, and they stay mostly in their hives. Bees are most active in the early afternoon, and have a habit of showing up when you’re dining al fresco. If you have apiphobia, or an intense fear of bees, you’ll welcome the return of the cooler fall air.

Bottom line: Do bees die after they sting you? Only the honeybee dies after stinging you, and only female bees have stingers. The female honeybee dies protecting its home.

Via UC Riverside Bees

August 7, 2022

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