Where the Bee Stings

Bee stings … an occupational hazard for beekeepers. The price paid for hosting hives and stealing their honey. I score about three hits per season, and they are generally deserved from carelessly zipping my beesuit. But honey bee stings don’t give the biggest punch: that dubious honor is held by the tarantula hawk and the bullet ant, each scoring 4 out of 4 on the Schmidt Sting Pain Index.



Dr. Justin Schmidt is a doughty entomologist at the University of Arizona (The Sting of the Wild). Over a career he has invited stings from every hymenopteran species he encountered. He gave a score of only 1 to some ants and small bees whose stings didn’t hurt much or for long. Most honeybee varieties scored 2, which I can report gets my attention. Red paper wasps and velvet ants were at 3. Few species reached the top of the range – a blinding pain that feels extreme/ excruciating/ electric – and yet the pain from a ¼” tarantula hawk sting is long over (if not forgotten) before a honeybee’s sting has started to fade. Why the difference? Why do some insect stings give crippling pain while others are as mild as pressing a pencil tip on the skin, and many fierce-looking bugs don’t or can’t sting? Nature presents many conundrums, but this isn’t one of them because stinging makes sense in biology.

The hawks lay their eggs inside tarantulas which are eaten alive after their larvae hatch. They rarely sting us unless we try really hard to annoy them, as Dr. Schmidt must have done to obtain “data”. Why should they shoot their big gun when we don’t normally threaten them? As solitary wasps they have no “home” to protect. The mud-dauber wasps are also solitary, often making a tubular nest of dried mud on the sidings of our home. Schmidt tried very hard to get them to sting him, and when one was sufficiently enraged it hardly hurt.

Honey bees and yellow jackets, on the other hand, are colony dwellers that store food during warm seasons to support them with their queen through the winter in readiness for a burst of foraging and reproduction in early spring. Their honeycomb must be defended at all costs, which they do aggressively whenever a beekeeper inspects his/ her hives. But honey bees rarely sting while they are feeding in a garden or meadow unless you trap them between your toes, etc.

During the hot Virginia summer large numbers of bees gather at the side of our pool to take water back to their hive for air-conditioning. I can impress visitors by nonchalantly wading through a buzzing cloud, trusting they won’t sting me clad only in swimming trunks. For the same reason that they are relatively docile away from their food store, a swarm of bees that is emigrating to create a new colony is quite passive, even though it may look terrifying. But there is a different explanation for the old trick of circus performers who dared to pour bees into their mouths – by carefully selecting drones they can’t be stung.

Queen bees possess a sting, but they leave hive defense to workers and reserve their swords for dispatching rival queens. There is another difference between them. Queens can sting repeatedly, whereas it is a death sentence for workers because their anatomy requires stings to be ejected with some of the viscera.

Human sensibilities might deem their sacrifice altruistic for defending the hive’s socialist society, but surely natural selection could have evolved a superior warrior bee that can sting and survive, just as many other species can and do? Perhaps the explanation is that death is required for the release of a special pheromone for attracting other bees to escalate attacking a threat. This pheromone is a mixture of volatile fatty acids said to smell like bananas, and beekeepers lightly smoke their hives to pacify bees by masking the scent. I can hardly blame them for being angry, and in a feminist poem Sylvia Plath sympathized with female workers whose bounty is stolen by (male) beekeepers:

Stings poem

One of the scariest encounters you might have on a hiking trail in the South-West is with a mountain lion, but I would rather take my chances with the big cat than with a swarm of Africanized bees (aka killer bees). They are spreading north in states from Texas to California. A young man died this summer after a bee attack, as have several dogs and even horses. Africanized bees can’t be outrun, wait for you to come up for air if you jump in a pool, and can’t be fought off except with fire. They don’t have a more painful sting but are more aggressive – much, much more aggressive.

The victim wasn’t reported to be allergic, but the thousand stings on his body exceeded the lethal dose for bee venom. The major active agent in venom is an acidic peptide, melittin, which has anti-inflammatory properties and is probably responsible for its long-supposed medicinal value in the Orient.

So there may be virtue in it, even while we try to avoid stings or carry an EpiPen as a precaution.

There is an outsized fear of being stung that beekeepers have to shrug off. But, apart from the 30 minutes of pain, let’s put a perspective on the big risk – of dying from bee stings.

According to CDC statistics for human mortality from wild and domesticated animals for the fifteen years to 2014, 486 people died from dog attacks, 1,163 from other mammals (mostly cattle and horses), 9 from crocodilians, about 15 from black bears and only one from a mountain lion. But 921 people died after being stung by bees, wasps or hornets, although most of them are thought to have been allergic to the venom. This is not a huge risk compared to others we face, and it is one that I dare say beekeepers hardly think about, but if we could compare the total number of attacks from all these species, combining non-fatal and fatal ones, I am sure bee stings would soar above all. And what do all these figures reveal – that we put ourselves most at risk not from ferocious wild carnivores but from the creatures we choose to live with or steal from.


About Roger Gosden

I took early retirement from my post as Professor & Research Director in Reproductive Biology at Cornell Medical College in New York City to concentrate on writing about science and nature,
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