Do Bees Die After Stinging?

The Physiology of Honey Bee Stings and What to Do If You Are Stung

Honey Bee Stinger

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According to folklore, a bee can only sting you once, and then it dies. ​But is that true? Here's an examination of the science behind bee stings, what to do if you are stung, and how to avoid stings.

Most Bees Can Sting Again

Bee stings are common and painful, but they are rarely deadly. Fatalities occur each year to 0.03-0.48 people per 1 million, making the probability of dying from a sting by hornets, wasps, or bees about the same as being struck by lightning. Bee stings typically result in brief, localized, limited inflammation and pain around the site.

If you have ever been stung by a bee, you may have taken some satisfaction in believing the bee was on a suicide mission when it stung you. But do bees die after stinging someone? The answer depends on the bee.

Honey bees die after they sting, but other bees, hornets, and wasps can sting you and live to sting another day—and another victim.

Purpose of Venom

The purpose of the bee's stinger element, called the ovipositor, is to lay eggs in largely unwilling invertebrate hosts. Venom secretions are intended to temporarily or permanently paralyze the host. Among honeybees (Apis genera) and bumble bees (Bombus), only the queen lays eggs; other female bees use their ovipositors as defensive weapons against other insects and people.

But honeycombs, where honey bee larvae are deposited and develop, are often coated with bee venom. Research has revealed that antimicrobial elements in honey bee venom provide newborn bees with protection from diseases due to the "venom bathing" they receive while in the larval stage.

How Stings Work

A sting occurs when a female bee or wasp lands on your skin and uses her ovipositor against you. During the sting, the bee pumps venom into you from attached venom sacs through the needle-like portion of the sting apparatus called the stylus.

The stylus is situated between two lancets with barbs. When a bee or wasp stings you, the lancets become embedded in your skin. As they alternately push and pull the stylus in your flesh, the venom sacs pump venom into your body.

In most bees, including native solitary bees and the social bumblebees, the lancets are fairly smooth. They have tiny barbs, which help the bee grab and hold the victim's flesh when it stings, but the barbs are easily retractable so the bee can withdraw its stinger. The same is true for wasps. Most bees and wasps can sting you, pull out the stinger, and fly off before you can yell "Ouch!" So solitary bees, bumblebees, and wasps do not die when they sting you.

Why Honey Bees Die After Stinging

In honey bee workers, the stinger has fairly large, backward-facing barbs on the lancets. When the worker bee stings you, these barbs dig into your flesh, making it impossible for the bee to pull its stinger back out.

As the bee flies off, the entire stinging apparatus—venom sacs, lancets, and stylus—is pulled from the bee's abdomen and left in your skin. The honey bee dies as a result of this abdominal rupture. Because honey bees live in large, social colonies, the group can afford to sacrifice a few members in defense of their hive.

What to Do for a Honey Bee Sting

If you get stung by a honey bee, remove the stinger as quickly as possible. Even detached from the bee, those venom sacs will continue to pump venom into you: more venom equals more pain.

Traditional sources say you should fetch something flat and stiff, like a credit card, to scrape the stinger off rather than pinching the stinger to remove it. However, unless you happen to be holding a credit card at the time of the sting, it's better to get it out of your skin quickly. If that takes a pinch, pinch away.

Avoiding Bee Stings

The best course of action is to avoid getting stung by bees. If you're outside, don't wear scented lotions or applications (soaps, hairsprays, oils). Don't wear brightly colored clothing, and by all means, don't bring along a can of sweet soda or juice. Wear a hat and long pants to avoid looking like a furry predator.

If a bee comes near you, stay calm; don't swat at it or flail your hands in the air. If it lands on you, gently blow on it to make it fly away. Remember, bees don't sting for fun. They do so only when they feel threatened or are defending their nests. In most cases, bees will choose flight over fight.

Sources