Why do bees sting people?

Beekeepers avoid stings by wearing protective clothing and carrying cigarettes to cover the alarm pheromones released by worker bees.

There are around 20,000 species of bees around the world, although when we talk about bees most people think of bees or bumblebees. These species are social bees that live in hives or colonies and are generally not aggressive. The only time bees sting is when an intruder, whether animal or human, gets too close to a nest, disturbs it, or physically harms a bee. The threatened bee not only stings in defense, but also releases an “alarm pheromone” to attract other bees, signaling them to join the attack.

A bee’s stinger can be removed with tweezers.

Bees are responsible for the characteristic wax hives we associate with bees and beekeeping. Hives have highly organized social structures. A single queen is at the center of each hive, surrounded by worker bees. Worker bees perform different functions at different stages of their lives. These bees start by feeding the larvae and cleaning the hive, progress to building the honeycomb, and eventually becoming foragers. Although queen and worker bees sting, males or drones do not have stingers.

A single bee sting can be irritating, but it won’t be harmful unless the person is allergic.

As worker bees release an alarm pheromone if threatened, beekeepers are very careful to avoid accidentally crushing or harming bees during honey harvest. Many beekeepers wear protective clothing, including gloves, overalls and a veiled hat. Some use “smoking bees” to cover up alarm pheromones that can result from working in the hive. The smoke also causes bees to gorge on honey, a natural response to being able to move the hive in the event of a fire.

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Beekeepers need to be careful when harvesting honey.

A single bee sting isn’t much more than irritating, but when bees sting en masse, the result can be lethal. This is particularly true if the victim is allergic to bee venom, a statistic that applies to about 1% of the population. However, for most of us, it would take around 10 bee stings for every pound of body weight to receive a lethal dose of bee venom. An adult weighing 140 pounds would need to receive 1,400 stings in one attack, while a child weighing 40 pounds could be at risk with 400 stings.

Worker bees only sting once and then die as the barbed stinger remains lodged in the skin, ripping out the bee’s abdomen as the bee flies away. Left attached to the top of the stinger is the venom sac, which can continue to pump venom into the wound for up to 10 minutes. For this reason, doctors recommend removing the stinger as soon as possible, although how this is done is important. Pinching, squeezing, or pinching the stinger can empty the venom sac inside the stinger, making matters worse. Instead, the stingers should be removed with a sideways “flipping” motion using a credit card, pocket knife blade, or some similar object.

Bee stingers are not barbed, so these bees will sting multiple times if threatened. Africanized bees are more aggressive than common (European) bees, but still only attack when the hive or swarm feels threatened. Like the common bee, Africanized bees only sting once and then die.

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Since bees sting when they are threatened, the best way to avoid stinging is to avoid nesting areas. Solitary bees that are collecting pollen usually do not mind being watched closely as long as they are not touched or threatened. If a bee flies by, avoid hitting it and just walk away. If a swarm takes up residence on your property, the best course of action is to call in a professional bee remover and bring in the pets until the bees are gone.

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