Bee Stings (Part One): What you need to know about honeybees

Part 1: Honeybees

Have you ever been outside and seen a bee and wondered if you are at risk of being stung? Most peoples first reaction is to move quickly away from the bee or to even swat it away. However, have you ever thought if all bees sting? If they die after they sting you? Or, do bees even want to sting you? Here is the 101 on stings

Fear not! There are many species of bees that are stingless, for examples: The Stingless Honeybee in South America (blue), the Vulture bee (green) and the Sugarbag Bee in Australia (yellow) [1].

So – Which species sting? There are around 5700 species of bees (Honeybees, bumblers and solitary) within the family called Apidae. However, not all of the bees sting, in fact there are around 500 species of stingless bees which collectively make a tribe called Meliponini. Honeybees, bumblebees and many solitary bees are equipped with a venom-loaded stinger. But even within these groups, not all members of a species sting! In today’s post, we’ll give you all the gory details of how and why the famous honeybee stings.

Honeybees

A bee’s stinger is an adaptation of the egg laying apparatus found at the end of the abdomen [2] . Male honeybees, known as drones, do not have a stinger and therefore cannot sting. All female honeybees have stings, including the Queen of the hive. However, she would be very hesitant to sting you as she knows that if she dies, the colony dies. If there is one motto that honeybees follow is that the hive comes first! Workers, the infertile females are the culprits that will not hesitate to jab you with their stinger, but only when they are provoked or threatened.

Why do honeybees have a sting in the first place? Bees face a myriad of invaders that range from honeybees from surrounding hives, wasps, cuckoo bees and some small mammals that have a sweet tooth. Having a sting gives the workers a mechanism to protect the hive from these invaders and subsequently prevent their stocks and young being eaten.

How do Honeybees Sting?

Honeybees can sting insects or each-other and not die. It is only when bees sting mammals that their barbed sting gets stuck, leading to the bee’s eventual death .  Honeybees have a sheath on either side of the stinger, this enables the sting to pierce mammalian skin and exoskeletons of insects.


 

An alkaline gland within the sting apparatus secretes a lubricant used by the sheath, enabling it to propel the stinger out of the abdomen into its target. The venom gland in the honeybee is a long thin bifurcated tubule that produces a cocktail of proteins that collectively are known as apitoxin [1, 2]. Apitoxin causes pain, increased blood flow (allowing the venom to travel faster) and causes itchiness. Venom is stored in a venom sac and its release is controlled by a venom bulb through the hollow point of the sting into the target. This ensures that there is no venom wasted when attacking other insects.


Figure adapted from Coloss BeeBook I

How did the bees get their sting?

It is accepted that bees evolved from a predatory wasp that preyed upon pollen-covered insects. These ancestral wasps used a sting as a weapon that allowed them to overpower their prey. It seems that bees caught a sweet tooth early on as it is suggested that ~10million years after the predatory wasp evolved that bees began to evolve. [1] Why have honeybees held onto their sting? Well as evolution works if an organism can use adaptions to increase their fitness in life then that adaption remains part of the organism, in this case the bee had use for the sting and therefore it stayed. We know today that there are several insects, birds and small mammals that will target honeybees as prey or as a means to access their honey.

One example of a predator of honeybees are Beewolves; these large solitary wasps use honeybees as a nursery not as food. They paralyze the bees and use them as a sustainable food source for their developing larvae. The European beewolf can lay up to 34 eggs each egg can be provided with up to 6 bees to feed upon. Honeybees themselves can be enemies, one hive may declare war on its neighbour meaning guard bees (workers aged ~17 days old) will have to use their stinger to protect the hive. In extreme honeybee wars there are significant losses as workers may die of exhaustion rather than a loss of their sting. [1]

The evolution on how the honeybee got its sting is surrounded by myths and legends that are still told to children and adults today. Check out a previous post on how Greek Mythology describes how the honeybee got her stinger.

How to avoid getting stung by a honeybee and what to do if it happens

In my experience of working with bees, both at home with my hives and surrounding myself with the wild bees in the garden to the apiary in Carlow. I have found that bees tend to be rather relaxed (as long as you aren’t swatting at them with a book or shoe). Bee’s when seen flying around gardens or grasses are not interested in you and most certainly aren’t thinking about stinging you. They want to go about their business of collecting nectar and pollen, much like we want to continue our summer BBQ’s or evening walks in the garden. If you happen to find a bee buzzing too close for comfort I would advise not to try and swat it away, leave it to realize that your sandwich doesn’t have pollen in it or that your burger isn’t coated with nectar. They will soon realize that human food is not what they want and they will leave. If you do find a bee stuck inside banging desperately at a window to get out, I would advise caution here as the bees can be stressed with the confusion of the glass. Use a glass and piece of paper to help the bee outside and be careful not to shake or stress it out more while your releasing it as it would only increase your chances of being stung.

Antihistamines are the best way I have found to reduce the redness of stings. Unfortunately, bees have designed their venom to hurt and have been working on it for hundreds of years, so I can’t say it won’t hurt.

Stay tuned for the next post on bumbler stingers…

References

1. Chadwick, F.; Alton, S.; Tennant, E.S.; Fitzmaurice, B.; Earl, J. The Bee Book; Laing, A., Ed.; Dorling Kindersley Limited 80 Strand, London, 2016; ISBN 978-0-2412-1742-9.

2. Peiren, N.; de Graaf, D.C.; Vanrobaeys, F.; Danneels, E.L.; Devreese, B.; Van Beeumen, J.; Jacobs, F.J. Proteomic analysis of the honey bee worker venom gland focusing on the mechanisms of protection against tissue damage. Toxicon2008, 52, 72–83.

3. Hooper, T. Guide to Bees and Honey; 4th ed.; 2008;

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s