Question: Can bees only sting me once?
Answer: Honeybees are generally killed by stinging you, but most other stinging insects can survive to sting you again.
It’s a common urban myth that bees can only sting once, but it’s partially based in truth. Honeybees have a barbed stinger, and if they sting a thick-skinned mammal like a human, the barbed hook gets stuck as they try to pull away, ripping their insides out and killing the bee within a few minutes. But if they were to sting another insect, or a vertebrate with thinner skin, they’d probably live to tell the tale.
Honeybees are the only hymenopteran species (ants, bees, wasps) with a very barbed sting, although some wasps such as yellow jackets have small barbs. This means they are often killed when stinging thick-skinned creatures like humans. But the queen bee has a smoother stinger with a much smaller barb, which means she can sting you multiple times, unharmed. However, this is pretty unusual, since the queen tends not to leave the nest if she can help it, and her workers will defend attacks against both the nest and their queen. Under normal conditions, the queen’s stinger is only used to dispatch with rival queens, which she usually kills before they hatch. However, if you’re a bee keeper and you manage to get the scent of queen honeybee all over your hands, you might find the queen stings you.
Perhaps because of this, honeybees tend not to be very aggressive. Away from the nest, foraging bees will almost never sting, unless you step on them or directly threaten them. Only when their most precious possession – the hive – is attacked will honeybees become aggressive and sting.
Only female bees – workers and queens – can sting. Their stinger is actually a modified ovipositor (the tube-shaped appendage insects use to lay their eggs), which has evolved to serve a different purpose. The stinger is formed of three parts – a stylus with two barbed lancets on either side. The barbed lancets (also known as slides) face in alternate directions along the length of the stylus. This means when a bee stings you, the lancets draw the stinger into the flesh – the bee doesn’t have to actively push it in. Venom is pumped through the stylus from venom sacks.
Other bees – including solitary bees and social bumblebees – have very small barbs on their lancets. These barbs are enough to ensure the stinger is drawn into the flesh and stays there, but are easily retracted allowing the bee to withdraw its stinger and go on about its day.
Because of this, honeybees leave their stinger in, usually with the venom sack still attached, so it will keep stinging you long after the bee itself has died. If you’re stung, make sure to carefully scrape the stinger out of your skin with a fingernail or a thin flat object – don’t just squeeze it!
Bee stings contain apitoxin, the main active component of which is melittin, along with histamines and a few other compounds that cause pain and itching. The sting also releases pheromones that attract other bees and stimulate them to attack. This signal is strongest if the first bee is killed. If these pheromones are released near the hive, the workers will actively defend the nest until the perceived threat has gone. The phernomoes aren’t easy to wash off either, which is why bee attacks can be so dangerous. It’s important to note, however, that a swarm of bees away from a nest is usually not hostile – it’s previous nest has most likely been destroyed and it’s looking for a new home. With no honey or young to defend, the bees are unlikely to attack you.
Wasps, like solitary and bumblebees have a smooth stinger and are able to sting you repeatedly. Although they don’t leave the stinger behind to keep pumping venom into you, wasp stings can still be very painful.
Other stinging insects
The most aggressive stinging insects are vespid wasps and hornets. Some ants are also able to sting you, although many others appear to sting you, but are in fact spraying you with a weak acid (formic acid), without breaking the skin.
For most people, a single bee or wasp sting is painful, but fairly harmless. However, some people can become allergic, and stings then trigger anaphylaxis, a potentially fatal condition. People who have previously reacted anaphylatically are 30 – 60% more likely to react this way again in the future. Anaphylaxis can occur in response to any insect sting. If you believe you may be having an anaphylactic reaction, seek emergency medical care immediately. The symptoms include:- severe swelling of the face, lips or throat, itching or a rash in an area not affected by the sting, difficulty breathing, dizziness, lightheadedness, nausea or vomiting, weak or racing pulse.
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Featured image by Insects Unlocked used under a creative commons licence from Wikimedia commons.