Do All Bees Sting?
Lisa Olson, Master Gardener
On one hand, a gardener’s tiny friend, the bee, is usually a docile doer of good, buzzing around from plant to plant, pollinating to provide a bountiful harvest in the future. On the other hand, many fear the small insect with the mighty sting. But do all bees sting? If you are curious, click on the link to learn more about our little friend, the bee.
Do all bees sting? The short answer is no. But some bees do sting, and they also get blamed for more than their fair share. Many people mistakenly call all stinging insects “bees.” Hornets and wasps are typically more aggressive than their rounder, fuzzier relative, the bee. Bees are pretty tolerant of humans unless they feel provoked or threatened. They will sting to protect their nest or hive, but they are generally not a threat to people if they are left alone. In fact, when bees are busy flying from flower to flower collecting nectar and pollen, you can safely observe them without fear of being stung. However, since about 80 percent of bee species nest in the ground, it is not surprising that many bee stings occur when someone unknowingly steps on a nest.
Certain bees are not capable of stinging. Only female bees have a stinger which is a modified egg laying apparatus. Male bees are not equipped with that part and therefore are unable to sting. Not every sting is equal among all female bees. While the social bumblebee and honeybee sting can be quite painful, the sting of most solitary native bees is similar to a pinprick. Of the nearly 20,000 known bee species in the world, about 400 of them live in Minnesota. Only about 2% of those are honeybees and bumblebees, including the state bee of Minnesota, the rusty patched bumblebee. The other 98% are mostly solitary bees like the mason and leafcutter bees.
While some bees are not capable of stinging at all, the female bumblebee, along with its relatives the yellow jacket and paper wasp, can sting multiple times. Its stinger is smooth so that it can remove it and re-inject it multiple times. The honeybee, on the other hand, has a barbed stinger. Once its stinger penetrates human skin, it becomes lodged and cannot be removed. When it flies away, the stinger stays behind, and the honeybee will die shortly afterward from the hole left in its abdomen. If that occurs, the sting victim should immediately scratch out the stinger with a fingernail rather than grasping it with two fingers to prevent squeezing more venom into the wound.
A very small portion of the population is allergic to bee or wasp venom. While a person is more likely to die from being struck by lightning than stung by a bee, an average of 62 people die each year in the United States from a bee, wasp, or hornet sting according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Since you can’t just hang around male bees, in order to avoid being stung, you can take the following precautions:
Stay calm. Don’t swat at bees. Just remain calm and slowly walk away.
Wear shoes outside. Stepping on a nest is the most common way to get stung.
Plant flowers away from your doors. Reduce the risk of a negative encounter by planting pollinator habitat away from high traffic areas.
Beekeepers wear white for a reason. If you don’t look or smell like a brightly colored flower, bees are less likely to bother you.
Just watch, don’t touch. If you leave them alone, they will leave you alone.
Bees are excellent neighbors and extremely beneficial to us. Pollinators are responsible for about one third of the food we eat. The best thing we can do, as with all wildlife, is to respect it by keeping our distance. That way we don't have to worry whether it is a stinging bee or not. And last of all, by providing more pollinator friendly habitat, we can ensure a healthy, happy bee population for the future.
Photo Credit: University of Minnesota (1,2,3,4)