Updated on January 16th, 2021
Not all bees sting. Some bees can sting but seldom do (such as bumblebees and carpenter bees). As a beekeeper, it’s the honey bees you need to pay attention to.
The vast majority of honey bees (the females which comprise worker bees and queens) sting. Male honey bees (drones) do not sting. Since drones only make up about 10-15% of a colony, honey bees are considered a stinging bee.
As a beekeeper, accept the fact that you will get stung no matter how careful you are. You’ll get comfortable and visit the hives without protective gear; you won’t notice a bee that slipped up your pant leg; you’ll place your bare hand in the wrong spot. Or maybe a random bee will zing you somewhere away from the hives for no apparent reason.
Since you will be stung (we’ve had the experience to prove it), let’s talk about it.
First, a disclaimer. We are not doctors or medical professionals nor do we pretend to be.
Before you begin beekeeping we suggest you seek professional medical advice to determine if you are allergic to bee venom (apitoxin). A severe allergic reaction to bee stings, known as anaphylaxis, can be life threatening.
Take the time to understand what your bee sting risks are and how to mitigate them.
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Why Do Honey Bees Sting?
Some stinging insects, like yellow jackets and hornets, may exhibit predatory behavior and can be aggressive. However, honey bees are not considered predatory. Honey bees sting to defend themselves and their hives if they feel threatened.
Each honey bee colony has guard bees watching over the hive entrance. Their job is to repel intruders: yellow jackets, bees from other colonies…maybe even you. The danger doesn’t have to be real, only perceived.
Your colony works hard to gather resources and build up food stores. Any intrusion can be a threat to their survival (you were planning to take some their honey, weren’t you?) and generate a defensive response.
While bee stinging is a defensive behavior, I think our perception of defensive versus aggressive behavior is related to the magnitude and duration of the bees’ response. Inadvertently putting my hand over a bee and getting stung seems pretty defensive. Having dozens of bees banging on my hood and following me long after I leave the beeyard feels more like aggression…a disproportionate response to my presence and whatever I’ve done.
Once a threat is perceived, bees emit alarm pheromones, chemical substances that alert other bees to the threat.
If a honey bee stings, a pheromone not only signals the other bees to be on alert but attracts them to the location of the sting. One sting can to turn into many in short order as the colony rallies to the defense.
A lone sting can be painful; a lot of stings can become a real problem even if you do not have a serious allergy.
Just like you and me, honey bees may not respond well to stress. A colony can be stressed by a variety of factors:
- Mishandling the bees causing the release of pheromones. Accidentally drop a frame full of bees and you’ll see what I mean as they swarm in confusion.
- Lack of a queen can cause the colony to become more aggressive. Without a queen, brood production drops and the hive can feel threatened.
- During a nectar dearth there is a lack of nectar and pollen taking a toll on the colony’s food stores. Knowing that food supplies are down can make the bees more defensive of their remaining valuable resources.
- Varroa mite or other pest infestations and diseases can negatively affect the mood of the colony.
- Rain or heat and humidity can make the bees cranky as their normal routine is hindered by the weather. (I can relate.)
- Robbing of honey stores by other bees, wasps and yellow jackets can occur during a nectar dearth or anytime that you might be feeding sugar syrup. Bees will be on guard at those times.
- Predators such as skunks and raccoons can disturb colonies at night. Bees may be more defensive the following day.
See our article What Is Summer Nectar Dearth (What To Do For Your Bees) for more information.
Your colony takes its behavioral lead from the queen. If the queen is disposed to aggressive behavior, your hive will be too.
Unfortunately, what makes your colony more aggressive may also make it more prolific. This creates the potential of a very large colony with a bad temperament.
If this occurs, you may need to dispatch (nice way of saying “kill”) the queen and replace her to improve matters. In extreme cases, where people or animals are seriously threatened by a hive’s aggression, the entire colony may need to be terminated.
A couple of years ago we had a hive that grew rapidly in its first year. This rapid growth was accompanied by an increase in aggressive behavior. Merely opening the top of the hive would cause about a dozen bees to immediately come at my face and head (a popular attack point). I could hear them banging against my hood. While I explored how to handle this situation (more on it below), I did not venture near the hive without protective gear.
It was too late in the year to replace the queen so I thought I’d wait until the next spring. The colony, much to my surprise, did not survive the winter so I didn’t have to deal with it.
The larger the colony, the more bees are available to defend the hive.
When you get a bee package in early spring, it probably has about 10,000 bees. In mid-summer, right about the time nectar dearth may occur making the bees more defensive, the colony could have 50,000 bees.
If an alarm pheromone goes when the population is near its peak, you may have 5 times as many bees responding as earlier in the year.
The increase in the colony’s size makes them seem a lot more aggressive.
What Happens When A Honey Bee Stings?
As a defense, the female honey bee may pierce your skin with a barbed stinger injecting apitoxin (bee venom). This action also releases pheromones as mentioned above.
When the bee attempts to leave, the barb is embedded inside the skin of larger animals (like you and me) and is torn from her body. This is why a bee dies from stinging you and only stings once. She is fatally wounded, without a barb, and unable to sting again.
However, one sting releases alarm pheromones increasing the chances of other bees nailing you too.
Bees can sting smaller threats like invading yellow jackets without leaving the stinger behind and thus can survive after such a sting.
Bee Sting Reactions
Reactions to bee stings range from mild to severe. Hopefully, you’ll take our advice and assess the possibility of having a severe reaction.
Primary reactions include sharp pain upon being stung accompanied by redness, itching and swelling.
The reaction may be mild, affecting a small area and lasting only a short period. A moderate reaction is indicated by increasing redness and swelling over period of time.
Severe reactions may be signs of anaphylaxis and include swelling of the throat and tongue, nausea and fever. Severe reactions can be life threatening. Get to an emergency room if you experience a severe reaction.
You can find detailed information on bee sting reactions on the Mayo Clinic website.
Melanie tends to have mild reactions to bee stings such as sharp pain where the sting occurs followed by slight swelling, redness and some itching. Her symptoms disappear after a few days.
My reactions tend to be stronger but I have seen them subside during the course of a season (more on that below). When I get stung, the initial pain includes sharp burning at the sting. Typically I experience little swelling until the next day; my area of redness and swelling is much larger than Melanie’s for a moderate reaction.
Along with the swelling comes itching. While Melanie’s swelling may last a few days, mine can last for a week.
The location of the sting for me also seems to impact the amount of swelling with the face being most severe.
A few years ago, I went out to the hives for a “quick peek”. I wore no protective gear. I opened the top of a hive and immediately one of the girls made a bee line (pun intended) and nailed me just above my left eye. The accompanying picture is what I looked like the following day.
I am not going to lie and say I’ve never gone near the bees without a hood since then, but those times have been few and far between.
What To Do When You Get Stung
If you’re like me, the first thing you do is yelp in pain and let out a string of expletives which doesn’t really address the situation.
The next thing is to look for the barb and remove it. You can usually scrape it off with a finger nail or a hive tool or even just pull it out. This may reduce the dose of venom you receive if you do it promptly.
Bees can sting through light layers of clothing (I’ve been stung through a sock and a pant leg). Pull the clothing away from your body and the stinger should come with it. However, the barb is not going be embedded as deeply as it would on bare skin.
If you’re having a severe reaction such as swelling of the lips and tongue, nausea, dizziness or worse get to an emergency room immediately or take whatever other steps your doctor may have advised. (I know I’ve repeated this but it must be taken seriously.)
There are many suggestions around as to how you can mitigate the impact of the sting. I immediately stop what I am doing and head for the Benadryl and Advil. Other suggestions include:
- Ice packs (which help with the inflammation)
- Baking soda paste or toothpaste on the sting
- Honey (again on the sting, not to eat)
- Calamine lotion or other anti-itch cream
If you are at risk for an acute allergic reaction, speak with your doctor about a prescription for an epinephrine pen.
You’ll get stung and have to learn what works for you.
How To Avoid Being Stung
There are a number of things you can and should do to reduce the odds of being stung and minimize the impact when it does happen. Here’s a list of main things to consider.
First, do your hive inspections in the middle of the day when a lot of bees are out foraging in nice weather. A less crowded hive is easier to inspect and you’re less likely to irritate the ones that remain.
Do not stand in front of the hive entrance. Work from the back or the side of the hive. Blocking the entrance will make you more threatening and cause the bees to become more defensive of their turf.
Work slowly and methodically. Try to avoid jerky movements and swatting at bees that bother you. (Behavior I am still working on). A calmer you often means calmer bees.
Wear protective clothing. Gloves, a bee jacket or suit and a hood or veil greatly reduce the bees’ ability to insert a barb.
The most important protective clothing is the veil as the face and head are main targets for defensive bees. You do not want to be stung on the eye!
Gloves can make it difficult to handle equipment at times and you will inevitably do some work barehanded. Remove any rings, particularly if working without gloves. Had my wedding ring been on when I got this sting on my hand, I probably would have had to get it cut off in a hurry. I take my ring off as a precaution whether I wear gloves or not.
If leather gloves are too cumbersome, try wearing some nitrile gloves. Many beekeepers report that the bees don’t like them and stay off.
Wear light colors. You’ll notice bee suits are usually white. The lighter color is not only going to be cooler in the summer, you’ll be less likely to look like a unwelcome bear than if you wore black.
Avoid heavily scented soaps, perfumes, deodorants, shampoos and such. These things may serve to attract the bees and not in a good way.
Always take your smoker and use it judiciously. A little bit of smoke can move bees away from areas you need to work and off to eating some honey. You can even blow a little smoke around your body if the bees are bothering you a bit.
See our article What Is A Bee Smoker (A Must-Have Beekeeping Tool) for more information on how to use the smoker.
Know when to walk away. Sometimes, no matter how careful you are, how perfect the weather is, how docile the bees have been of late, the bees are just not in the mood for you to be upsetting their hive. A little smoke may calm them down. Walking away for a few minutes might do the trick. But sometimes the best thing to do is close up the hive, let the bees alone, and come back another day.
Can You Build Up Immunity To Honey Bee Stings?
My research and own experience tells me yes, though I know there are some differing opinions on this topic. Those guys you see on YouTube working their bees with little or no protective gear are certainly stung from time to time but seem to have little reaction.
According to this article in New Scientist magazine, a study in Switzerland showed that “high doses of bee venom early in the year block a normally potent immune reaction for the remainder of the season.” As a result, the reaction to the stings becomes muted. This process starts over each spring.
A couple of years ago I got a number of stings early in the season. As the summer progressed, my reaction to stings became less severe with each one. Early in the year the swelling and related symptoms from a sting lasted almost a week. By the end of the season, I was clear of any reaction within a day or two.
However, I have also hear anecdotal evidence of people who suddenly had a severe reaction to a sting after years of beekeeping without any problems.
When you get stung, pay attention to your symptoms. Don’t assume your reaction will always be same.
As I said at the outset, if you’re a beekeeper, you will get stung.
Find out if you may potentially have a severe allergic reaction and follow a doctor’s advice.
Bee stings are painful and annoying. Wear protective gear, pay attention to your colony’s behavior and take steps to limit the chance of being stung.
Do not tolerate excessive aggression that poses a danger to you or others.