Do Honey Bees Die After They Sting You?

The Physiology of Honey Bee Stings and What to Do if You're Stung

Honey Bee Stinger
Getty Images/Paul Starosta

According to traditional folklore, a bee can only sting you once, then it dies. ​But is that really true?

Most Bees Can Sting More Than Once

Bee stings are common and painful, but they are rarely deadly, calculated at about .03-.48 fatalities per 1,000,000 people per year. The probability of dying from a sting by hornets, wasps, or bees is about the same as being struck by lightning. Bee stings typically give you a brief localized sting and limited inflammation around the site.

Despite their temporary and minor effect, if you have ever been stung by a bee, you may have taken a little satisfaction in knowing the bee was on a suicide mission when it stung you. But do bees really die after they sting you? The answer depends on the bee.

Honey bees do, indeed, die after they sting you, but bumble bees and other bees, hornets, and wasps can sting you and live to sting another day.

The Purpose of Bee Venom

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

But honeybee combs, where the honey bee larvae are deposited and develop, are often coated with bee venom. Recent research has identified antimicrobial elements in honey bee venom, and those researchers believe that is so newborn bees may gain protection from diseases from the "venom bathing" they receive while in a larval stage.

How Bee Stings Work

A bee 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 the attached venom sacs through the needle-like portion of the sting apparatus called a stylus.

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

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

Why Honey Bees Die When They Sting

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. Thus, a honey bee can only sting once. 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 if You Are Stung by a Honey Bee

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

Traditional sources tell us that you should fetch something flat like a credit card to scrape the bee off rather than pinching the stinger to remove it from you. However, unless you happen to have a credit card in your hand at the time of the sting, it is better to get it out of your skin quickly, and if it takes a pinch, pinch away.

Bee Sting Avoidance

Of course, the best thing is to avoid getting stung by bees at all. If you are headed 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. Let it land on you if it wants and gently blow on it to make it fly away again. Remember, bees don't sting just for fun. They do so only when they feel threatened or in defense of their nests. In most cases, bees will choose flight over fight.