Once, over the summer, I was walking around with my cousin, who is about ten. She is deathly afraid of bees, but she decided if she was walking with me, then the bees couldn’t hurt her, because I’m “the bee girl.” I couldn’t disagree with her, if only because bees really aren’t aggressive unless you attack their hive. But if bees aren’t aggressive then why do they have this reputation?
Part of it is solely that bees can hurt you, and thus it does make sense to take caution when around a great number of them, especially if you are allergic. Let’s go over what bees can actually do to you and if they would hurt you, and let’s start with honey bees.
Worker bees have a barbed stinger; when they sting you it pulls out their abdomens and kills them but the stinger also stays lodged in your skin, pumping in more venom and releasing alarm pheromones to alert other bees to your presence. Hence why you should dig a stinger out asap if you ever get stung, and why if you have smoke available, it’s good to smoke stings. Getting stung once greatly increases your likelihood of getting stung again if there are other bees of the same species around. Even then, if you’re not around the hive, for many bees faced with an enemy as big as a human, it makes more sense to abscond back to their hives rather than martyr themselves over a few flowers.
Drones don’t even have stingers, which is why they’re completely useless unless it’s mating season. Queen bees do not have barbed stingers, so they can sting you over and over again, but you probably won’t see them out and about unless it’s Spring and they’re swarming. Generally, swarming bees are a bit lethargic, but they will do anything to protect their queen, so I’d stay away if I were you (you can actually call the university’s entomology department if you see a swarm and they’ll send someone out to collect it).
So what about solitary bees and bumblebees, I hear you, the informed reader, ask. Aren’t they aggressive? Generally speaking, no. For solitary bees, it makes more sense for them to abscond than it does for them to protect their nests, especially since they do not take active care of their offspring. They may, however, attack you, if you try to capture or hurt them. Bumblebees are in between honey bees and solitary bees; they are more aggressive near their hive and much less aggressive in the field. Both of these bees have normal stingers, meaning they can sting you over and over, but they’re not likely to.
Personally, I think these anecdotes and the many children who are terrified of bees come from misinformation; people often mix up the difference between bees and wasps. For reference, here is a bumblebee and a honey bee next to a wasp:
I think the difference is rather obvious, but I can understand why parents, who are more worried about their kid than looking at this thing attacking them, get it wrong. Wasps are like queen bees; they can sting over and over and they are very aggressive (wasps, unlike bees, kill other insects and eat them). If you see a wasp, I strongly recommend leaving it alone and trying to get away from it; you could try to kill it, but pissing it off assures it will also come after you. While I’m giving a PSA, if you see a wasp’s nest (pictured below) around your house or in a public area, then you should absolutely call someone to get rid of it.
As for my cousin, don’t worry. I made sure she wasn’t stung.
Information for this post came from the following:
Christiansen, Anna. “Why Do Honeybees Die When They Sting?” PBS.org, Oct 2014. www.pbs.org/newshour/science/honeybee-sting-kill-bee
(All photos used are under Creative Commons)