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Nine facts about bee stingers

I am fascinated by the amount of ouch that comes along with a bee sting. After getting stung by honey bees so often, I was amazed at how differently stings from other bees can feel. For example, the sting of an alkali bee is sharp like a pin prick, but the pain recedes immediately and the sting leaves no mark. The sting from an alfalfa leafcutting bee barely registers, but it leaves a small red welt that itches like a mosquito bite for days.

The worst sting I ever got was from a wasp of some sort. I didn’t see it on the handle of the garage door, and I wrapped my palm right around that sucker. I was in agony for an hour or more. Second in line for ouch was a bumble bee sting—although cute and fuzzy, they can pack a wallop.

For me, honey bee stings hurt, then itch, then disappear a few minutes later—unless I get stung on the face. The face ones swell up for days, which I don’t understand.

Anyway, confusion about who stings and how often is common, so here are a few facts about stings in general.

  1. Only female bees can sting. Stingers evolved from ovipositors, and since males were never designed to lay eggs, they don’t have ovipositors. In wasps, you will often see long, slender ovipositors that are used to lay eggs inside the bodies of other invertebrates. In some cases, the ovipositor also carries a poison which anesthetizes its prey. When vegetarian bees evolved from wasps, they didn’t need to weaken their prey (pollen isn’t inclined to run away) so the stinger evolved into a defense mechanism.
  2. Not all female bees can sting. According to Laurence Packer in Keeping the Bees, only about 75% of bee species have females that can sting humans.
  3. Honey bees are the only bees with barbed stingers. A few species of wasps have barbed stingers, but among the bees, honey bees are unique. A barb securely embedded in the skin of the enemy gives the venom gland more time to pump its contents.
  4. Honey bees die after they sting. The bee dies because a portion of its internal organs are ripped from its abdomen as it flies away. But the worker may not die immediately; some live hours or even days after the event.
  5. Honey bee stingers don’t always embed. Sometimes, when honey bees sting thin-skinned creatures such as other bees, the stinger does not embed and they can sting again.
  6. Bees without barbs can sting many times. Except for honey bees, bees that can sting, can sting many times because the stingers slide out easily without damaging the bee.
  7. The stinger of a queen honey bee is not barbed. The lack of barbs means she can sting more than once. Honey bee queens use their stingers to fend off competition from other queens within the hive, including virgins.
  8. Stingless honey bees are a dream come true. Not really. Although stingless honey bees don’t sting, they bite and spit caustic venom into the wound.­
  9. Sting venoms are unique. According to Sammataro and Avitabile in The Beekeeper’s Handbook, the venom produced by each species has a unique chemical profile. For this reason, some hurt more than others, and a person allergic to the sting of one species may not be allergic to the sting of another.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

Honey bee stingers kill a hornet.
Honey bees kill a hornet. Honey bee stingers can often be withdrawn from a small predator and used again. © Rusty Burlew.

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Comments

Michael
Reply

Years ago I flipped over a piece of plywood and uncovered a nest of bumbles. One flew up and stung me on the stomach through my shirt. I still have a knot from it.

muddy Valley
Reply

The worst sting I ever had was from a Conga ant on the Napo river in Ecuador where I was a Peace Corps Vol. in the 70’s. I watched the stinger come out and arch into the tip of my index finger. The pain shot up a nerve in my arm and then I felt it come back down to my hand. My arm and hand were in pain for the rest of the day & still hurt some the following day. I believe that ants are said to be more closely related genetically to bees than wasps.

Ronald
Reply

Worst case scenario anaphylactic shock. How does one recognize it in ones self and others? What is the first responder’s appropriate actions to anaphylactic shock?

Rusty
Reply

Ronald,

Wrong website. Try one of the medical sites for answers to these questions. When I’ve seen anaphylactic shock, the person’s palms started to itch, and then they had trouble breathing, but I think the symptoms can be different depending on the individual. Any one who knows they are prone to anaphylaxis should carry an Epi-pen.

Pedro
Reply

Hi Rusty,
Leaving the medical details aside, it would be interesting to hear testimonies from people who develop sensitivity reactions to bee stings and how they deal with it.
I myself developed a sensitivity reaction a few months after getting my first bee hive, last year, and had to get a steroid and anti-histamine shot on my second bee sting within a month. It was a bit scary the first time round.
I have had a specialist consultation, checked for specific antibodies against bee, paper wasp and Vespa sp. wasp venom to ascertain the degree of my body reaction to these venoms and now carry with me at all times both anti-histamine pills, corticosteroid pills and epi-pen (adrenaline/epinephrine) shots.
Thankfully, on my next 3 stings (so far) I have been able to control symptoms with just pills, I never developed full anaphylactic symptoms such as difficulty breathing or low blood tension. So, I keep on trying to find ways to avoid further stings but I am unable, for now, to give up on keeping bees, I love it too much.
The doctor that saw me did complain about this. She says that she doesn’t understand what it is about bee keeping but she always fails to convince people that go to her to give up bee keeping. She is a specialist in venom dessenssitivation therapy (‘vaccination’ for venom) for the people with anaphylactic reactions. When she told me the safest option would be to give it up I told her I would like to avoid that as I love it too much. She sighed and said that was the typical answer and she has learned to live with the reticence of bee keepers to give it up. So she gave me advices on how best to avoid being stung and how to deal with it when it happens and what cares to take.
I didn’t qualify for the venom vaccination as my reaction wasn’t deemed life-threatning so far (thankfully) , and I have fortunately been able to control it with pills. I did get stung once on my scalp and my face became quite ‘funny’. My lips looked like Angelina Jolie’s and my eyes got burried in edema. As I was waiting for the pill effects to kick in and I had rushed to my neighbours house so someone could administer the epinephrine shot to me should I need it and was unable to do it myself it was in a strange way kind of funny to watch myself in the mirror. But not looking forward for it to happen again.
How do people deal with it in the States or elsewhere? It would be interesting to hear other beekeepers experience of it and how they went about dealing with it.
Mind you, in no way do I intend to take lightly something that can and does kill people, sometimes extremely fast. Someone with full anaphylactic reaction to a bee sting can go into shock and die within a couple of minutes, it isn’t something to take lightly and the epi-pen should be right next to someone with allergic reactions.
But maybe people can share how they learned to cope with their less serious allergic reaction to bee venom and their strategies to avoid being stung.
Thanks!
Pedro

Mark Martin
Reply

Speaking as a beekeeper that has recently undergone an anaphylactic reaction to a honeybee sting, you are correct. A non-localized reaction is one sign. My mistake was thinking that breathing trouble was always a symptom, there are many more.

Yeah, I think that WebMD might be a far more appropriate site to get info on anaphylaxis…..

Kathy O'Brien
Reply

I keep an epi-pen on hand at my home, where I keep my hives. (Just ask your doctor for a prescription; it shouldn’t be a problem.) This is just in case someone who doesn’t know they really ARE allergic to bee stings gets stung. (Actually, I wish I had a nickel for all the times a friend told me they are allergic to bees, when they’re really not.)

muddy Valley
Reply

The bullet ant is also called the Conga ant (I believe that is it’s Quechua name) and the ant that stung me on the finger so long ago. The pain was very intense and affected my entire arm.

Glen Buschmann
Reply

Hey Mark –

First, the littlehouse blog link does not seem to lead to any posting beyond the title. The Mike Smith NIH post on the other hand — yikes. Alex Wild, (my prior post just above you) said he’d trade 7 bullet ant stings on the arm for the one honey bee sting he’d gotten on his nose. Both Smith and Wild et al make Justin Schmidt’s development of the Sting index seem sane and rational, maybe even slightly dull and boring — until now I’d considered that he was meticulous but borderline certifiable.

Jerry Holman
Reply

I forgot how bad a honeybee sting felt till I was recently stung. A week later I was stung but the stinger didn’t go in very far and it felt more like I pricked my finger. As for bad reaction I have had a anaphylaxis reaction to a yellow jacket sting to my lip. If you have any swelling beware and better be safe than sorry. Important to search a medical site or talk to your doctor about this if you keep bees. My doctor told me that it is possible to have no reaction with one sting but have a serious reaction the next. I keep two epy- pens with me when I work the bees . Please read up on this serious reaction.

Veddah
Reply

Two of my bees stung me in a symmetric position on either side of my neck/face. Within minutes swelling on both sides of my face and neck appeared. Even though an ambulance crew administered an antihistamine injection the swelling increases. About 12 hours later my air passage was reducing in size rapidly. Steroids and strong antibiotic treatment worked.

Rusty
Reply

Veddah,

That is really sad for a beekeeper.

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