Why Do Bees Die After Stinging?Animals
Have you ever been stung by a honeybee? It's not the most pleasant experience! It burns for hours, and then swells up leaving a big red welt for days. But as bad as it feels it’s actually the bee that gets the raw end of this deal, because a few minutes after it’s stung you, it dies!
Why would an animal have a self-defence mechanism that’s more deadly to it than the thing it’s attacking? That doesn’t make sense! Well, there’s actually a lot more to this kamikaze defence mechanism than meets the eye! So, put on some thick gloves and get the ice ready, because we’re about to delve into the secrets of bee stings!
You might not want to admit it, but if you’ve ever been stung by a bee, it was probably your fault. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news but, in general, bees only sting humans if we approach their hives or threaten them with aggressive or reckless behaviour. If a bee is hunting for pollen, they’ll leave us alone… unless we handle them roughly or step on them! Now, you may have heard that all bees die after stinging. Well, actually, only the honeybee does!
When any bee stings you, it simply inserts its stinger into your skin. In the case of honeybees, however, their stinger is made of two, barbed lancets, giving it rougher edges that can act as tiny hooks. Because of these lancets, when a honeybee inserts its stinger into the skin, it can’t pull the stinger back out!
That doesn’t stop the honeybee trying though. The second they try to take off, not only is their stinger pulled out, but the muscles, nerves and parts of their digestive system attached to it are torn out of their backside as well!
It's definitely a nasty way to go but there’s an even more tragic element to it. When honeybees sting insects, as they often do when bugs try to attack the hive, they can remove their stingers just fine. It’s all down to the amount of fibre in a mammal’s skin that causes the stinger to lodge! Those barbed lancets are designed to dig in as deeply as possible and, when it comes to a mammal’s fibrous skin, there’s no removing that stinger without ripping it out! So, those poor honeybees have no idea that, when they sting us, the impact will kill them! But back to us humans! What impact does a bee sting really have on our skin? Well, bee stings inject a venomous toxin called melittin, which gives the sting its painful effect. And if you’re allergic to bee stings, it is actually this melittin that you’re allergic to!
The toxin causes redness and swelling at the site of the attack and, since bee venom dissolves in water, it’s able to spread around the human body with ease. If you weren’t aware, 60% of the human body is water so… there’s a lot of spreading to be done!
Now, if you are ever stung by a honeybee, you must remember to remove the stinger immediately. Alongside those muscles and nerves, the pulsating sacks of melittin the honeybee leaves behind will continue to pump venom into the skin until they’re removed. So, you’d better pick them out as soon as possible! The longer it’s in there, the more melittin is injected, and the itchier and more swollen the area will get!
Now, to anyone terrified of bees, this might sound like a joke: a lot of bees are actually unable to sting! That’s right. All male bees and many female bees from several different bee families simply cannot sting! In fact, the Andrenidae are an entire family of bees whose stingers are so drastically reduced, they couldn’t sting you if they wanted to! There’s also another group of bees called the Meliponini, also known – literally - as stingless bees! These tend to be found in sub-tropical regions, like Australia, Africa, Southeast Asia and parts of Brazil and Mexico. In fact, most bees in Central and South America are stingless!
So, without a usable stinger, how do stingless bees defend themselves? Well, like many other insects, they bite instead! However, just like their stinging cousins, these bees will use their bite to cling on to their enemy to the death – either theirs or the enemy’s! Therefore, they’re just as self-sacrificial as those bees with stingers!
Like regular bees, stingless hives have been known to consist of anywhere between 3,000 to 80,000 workers! That being said, only a small number of stingless bee species produce enough honey to be farmed by humans. But that doesn’t mean we haven’t found use for them! Because of their relatively harmless nature, many people, especially in Brazil, choose to keep stingless bees as pets!
So, if you’re looking for a pet but don’t fancy any of the traditional options, a stingless bee colony might be what you’re looking for! It won’t require walking, you wouldn’t have to pick up its poop, and you get a little free honey at the end of it! Suddenly my dog is looking like a bit of a bum investment.
THE STINGING SCHEME
Bringing it back to bees that can sting, have you ever wondered how a bee makes the decision to use its stinger? Well, to answer that question, we first have to understand pheromones. A pheromone is a chemical or a mixture of chemicals released by an organism that affects the behaviour of other members of the same species. So, it’s information communicated – mainly – by an organism’s sense of smell! The idea that there are chemical messages floating around us all the time may sound a bit crazy, but pheromone signalling like this is essential to a bee’s survival! For example, a ‘primer pheromone’ causes long-term changes in the physiology and behaviour of a bee. Therefore, a chemical signal alone can literally alter a bee’s body during development!
But a ‘releaser pheromone’ causes a rapid change in behaviour. So, alarm pheromones, which are types of releaser pheromones, are emitted immediately after a bee stings something. This alerts other bees to something like a threat entering the hive, instructing all those that can sense the pheromone to attack the intruder! But when do they know how to stop?
Well, a team of researchers from the Universities of Constance and Innsbruck helped answer this question in 2021! They found that bees base their decisions about whether to sting or not based almost solely on the amount of this alarm pheromone in the atmosphere. In addition to this, they learned bees hold two internal thresholds that measure the pheromone’s level: one that tells them when to begin stinging, and one that tells them when to stop. Almost like an internal thermometer – but for violence!
These pheromones can also help the bees determine the extent of the threat they face, with more pheromones in the air indicating more danger. As such, the bees can work out the level of danger via the level of alarm pheromone in the atmosphere! So, the more an intruder is stung, the more bees come to fight it off. Considering a single colony can consist of more than 100,000 bees, that’s one fight you definitely don’t want to be on the wrong side of!
Back in 2019, it was estimated that your odds of kicking the bucket because of an allergic reaction to a bee sting was just 1 in 59,507, or 0.00168%. Fortunately, most of us can breathe easy! Except, those are your odds if you’re faced with regular honeybees. Your odds of surviving dramatically decrease if you’re faced with the Africanized bees of North and South America. These are bees that were taken to Brazil in 1956 by scientists attempting to develop a honeybee better suited to a tropical climate.
The African bees were placed in quarantine, but 26 queens broke out! The queens then began breeding with native Brazilian bees, resulting in a species of ultra-aggressive, ultra-lethal mutant bees who have formed hives all across the Americas. These Africanized bees are very defensive and will fight back with all guns blazing – or, more accurately, all stingers stinging - at even the smallest provocation. Africanized bees have fatally injured more than 1,000 people, with victims found with 10 times more stings than European bees! Not only that, they’ve been known to chase people for up to a quarter of a mile! Now, this scarily high death rate isn’t because Africanized bees have a more venomous sting than others. It’s that they attack in huge numbers - with reports of swarms reaching a terrifying 800,000 bees!
This leads to the question of how many stings a person can withstand before the worst happens. Well, the average person can tolerate around 10 stings for each pound of their body weight. That means, discounting an allergic reaction, the average adult human can withstand roughly 1,000 stings, whereas a child can only tolerate up to 500. So, versus 800,000 angry Africanised bees, less than 0.2% of the swarm would be enough to end you!
WASP’S THE DIFFERENCE?
We can't talk about bees without mentioning wasps! Unlike a bee’s, wasp stingers aren’t barbed, meaning they can be used over and over without risk of the creature dying. But while their stings might feel the same, wasp stings are actually made up of a completely different set of toxins! One way to measure this is on the PH scale, which ranks a substance from 0 to 14 depending on how acidic it is. A 0 on the PH scale is purely acidic, like battery acid, and a 14 is entirely alkaline, like drain cleaner. So, as another example, water is a 7 on the PH scale, right in the middle, because it is neither acidic nor alkaline and is therefore classed as neutral.
So, where do bee and wasp stings land on the PH scale? Well, with a score of between 4.5 and 5.5, bee stings veer towards being slightly acidic while, with a score of between 6.8 and 6.9 wasp stings are ever so slightly more alkaline! That means bee stings are about as acidic as tomato juice and beer, while wasp stings are about as alkaline as saliva, milk, and urine!
The PH scale not only demonstrates how different bee and wasp stings are, but also why humans have distinct reactions to them. While there are many similarities in the body’s reaction to the toxins, you might be surprised to discover that people who are allergic to bee stings are not necessarily allergic to wasp stings! And it’s the same the other way round, of course. But this is all without mentioning the bee’s other unpleasant cousin: the hornet! Now, technically, hornets are a specific type of wasp, but they are so much larger than the average wasp they’ve earned their own classification – and reputation.
Hornets are generally a little friendlier than wasps but, when they do get aggressive, their stings are far more painful because their venom contains a high amount of acetylcholine – a powerful pain stimulant! However, they’re not immune to pain themselves. Standard hornets can grow up to 2 inches in size, which makes them big enough to be infected by Xenos moutoni; parasites that live inside the hornet’s body.
The Xenos parasite causes the hornet to drastically alter its behaviour, flying to meet other infected hornets so the Xenos parasites can mate. The male parasite exits its host hornet and crawls into a hornet hosting a female parasite; as such, hornets infected with the male parasite will die. When they’re removed, the parasites can look like the most dangerous stingers in the insect kingdom, but – mercifully - they’re more of a danger to the hornets than they are to humans!
I’ve been calling them stingers, but the scientific name for the pointy end of the bee is actually the ovipositor. And, believe it or not, they’re intended to do more than just deliver a painful prick. An ovipositor is a tube-like organ used by some female organisms, insects in particular, to help manoeuvre its eggs. As such, ovipositors are designed to prepare space for an egg, and then transmit it before attaching it onto a surface.
So, the so-called stingers of bees – as well as wasps, hornets, and ants – are really ovipositors! Except, because they’ve been utilised for another purpose, they’re what we call modified ovipositors. In the case of bee stingers, the ovipositors are modified with the venom glands mentioned earlier! For their part, queen bees, who are the lone reproducers within the colony in most cases, do not have the same ovipositors as your average worker bee. The ovipositor on a queen bee is smaller, smoother, and un-barbed, making it more adept at laying eggs; something the queen definitely needs, seeing as – at their peak – a healthy queen can lay up to 3,000 eggs a day!
But when a queen meets another queen, the ovipositor is used as a stinger and a fight to the death ensues – highlander style, because there can be only one! For their part, worker bees can use their ovipositors for their traditional purpose. If a hive becomes queen-less, the pheromones the queen releases to stop ovary development in other female bees is ceased! This means, without the queen, the bee’s bodies develop the organs they need to reproduce! However, if – by some freak accident - a worker bee tries to lay an egg while the queen is still alive, a conflict could ensue. After all, there’s only room in the hive for one Queen Bee!
You may have heard that elephants are, hilariously, afraid of mice. Well, the jury is still out on whether that’s true or not, but there is another animal that definitely haunts an elephant’s nightmares. Can you guess which one? Indeed, elephants are terrified of bees! As unbelievable as it sounds, the largest land animal in the world reacts wildly to these teeny-tiny insects!
While human skin is penetrable to bees, elephant skin is too tough to even make a dent in! What bees can do is attack the more sensitive parts of an elephant such as its trunk, mouth, and eyes – in massive swarms, causing it great pain! At the same time, elephants are so large that they generally have no natural predators, so they’re not used to this sort of terrifying invasion! So much so that conservationists actually use this fear as a means of protecting the elephants from poachers and farmers! Researchers and advocates now recommend that farmers boarder their farms with beehives to keep the elephants off their land, and this works in a whopping 80% of cases!
There’s just one catch: the farmers have to use real bees! Despite their irrational fear, elephants have the largest brains of any land animal, containing as many neurons as the human brain. This means they’re smart enough to tell the difference between an empty beehive and an active one! In some cases where just the sound of buzzing bees were played from the hive, the elephants managed to quickly establish that the threat was not real!
You’d normally think that most people would get as far away from a bee sting as possible. However, some people think it’s good for them! I’m referring to apitherapy – otherwise known as bee venom therapy – which is the name for medical treatments administered through bee stings! Therapy with bee venom can involve receiving up to 40 stings in a single session. Ice is used throughout to numb the skin and reduce pain. The rationale behind apitherapy is that bee stings cause inflammation and therefore trigger an anti-inflammatory response in the body.
This could potentially benefit people with muscular conditions like multiple sclerosis. But other people just like it because, wherever there’s a crazy health fad, there’s a group of even crazier people undergoing the treatment. In 2005, a clinical trial compared people with MS who received bee venom therapy every week with those who received no treatment. After 24 weeks measuring elements like fatigue and quality of life, the results were in. And, unsurprisingly, absolutely no difference was found between the two groups! Thank god nobody told Gwyneth Paltrow about this yet!