Bees can only sting you once. Once a bee stings you, it dies.
You've probably heard that before, right? And if you've been stung by a bee, as most of us have at one time or another, you probably took a little satisfaction in knowing the bee was on a suicide mission when it stung you. Did you ever wonder if it's true? Do bees really die after they sting you?
The answer actually depends on what kind of bee stung you. Honey bees do, indeed, die after they sting you, but other bees (and wasps, for that matter) can sting you and live to fight another battle.
The stinger (or sting) on any bee or wasp is actually a modified ovipositor. That's why you don't have to worry about male bees or wasps stinging you; only female bees and wasps can sting. Venom, pumped from attached venom sacs, is injected into the unfortunate victim through the stylus, the needle-like portion of the sting apparatus. The stylus is enclosed between a pair of lancets. When a bee or wasp stings you, the lancets become embedded in your skin. They alternately pull the stylus into your flesh, and then the venom sacs pump venom into your body.
In most bees, including our 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.
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 sting 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. So 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.
If you do get stung by a honey bee, be sure to remove the stinger as quickly as possible. Those venom sacs, though detached from the bee, will continue to pump venom into you. Scrape it out of your skin with a fingernail, or with something flat, like a credit card. Just don't squeeze it as you do so, because you'll release more venom from those venom sacs into your body.
Of course, it's best to avoid getting stung by bees at all. 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.
- Bee Stings, BeeSpotter, University of IllinoisDept. of Entomology, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, accessed October 10, 2012
- About Bee and Wasp Stings, West Virginia University Extension Service, accessed October 10, 2012
- Bee Sting Venom, University of California at Davis, accessed October 10, 2012
- Guide To Bee-Friendly Gardens University of California at Berkeley, accessed October 10, 2012
- AmericasBeekeeper, accessed October 10, 2012