Why Do Bees Die After Stinging?

Why Do Bees Die After Stinging?

Stinging is a defense mechanism used by various different species of Hymenoptera including wasps, hornets, yellow jackets, and, of course, bees.

As such, it doesn’t make a lot of sense for a defense mechanism to act like a self-destruct button, killing the bees after they sting you. You’ve probably heard about this a lot, however, it’s not completely true.

First off, the process of leaving behind a body part, in this case a stinger, in a defensive act is known as autotomy and only a certain number of bees fall prone to this fate. If these bees sting other insects or beings with thin skin, the bee will actually survive the encounter without autotomizing. Interestingly, it is due to our strong skin that bees end up acting like little “Kamikaze” buzzers. This is because the stingers on bees are barbed, and when inserted into a tough surface, like the skin of humans or other mammals, it gets stuck as opposed to slipping back out when the bee attempts to fly away.

When the bee, takes off, tugging their body against the resistance of the stinger, the stinger will remain in the victim’s skin, ripping out of the bee. Unfortunately for the bee, it’s not only the stinger that goes. The abdomen of the bee is torn open, revealing and leaving behind the venom sack (which is attached to the stinger) along with some muscles, part of its digestive tract, and nervous system. It is this dismantling of their insides that ultimately ends the bee.

So Why Do They Sting?
It seems surprising that bees still sting if it kills them, but there are many reasons for this. One of the main reasons lies in the fact that bees aren’t necessarily aware that the act of stinging could be synonymous with an act of suicide; they’re just attempting to protect themselves, their colony, or their hive. Furthermore, when bees sting, it releases a specific type of alarm pheromone to alert their fellow hive members. Once detected this incites the protective ‘fight or flight’ reactions of the other bees, making them aggressive and causing them to sting any nearby beings rather indiscriminately.

Stinging Shenanigans
If you’ve unfortunately been stung make sure to follow these steps to stay safe:

Inform others around you and seek medical attention.
Be sure to inform others and medical staff if you have a known allergy to stings.
Pull any remaining stingers out! The longer a stinger is in, the more venom is able to seep into your skin. A great way to cleanly remove a stinger is by using a straight edged object and swiping it across the area – you can even use your fingernail for this. Recent research has shown that it’s just important the remove the stinger as quickly as possible.
Wash the area with soap and water.
Apply a cold compress to reduce swelling.

Davidson, O. (2016) Summer Safety: How to Avoid Bee-Swarm Attacks, Scientific American. Springer Nature America. Available at: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/summer-safety-how-to-avoid-bee-swarm-attacks/ (Accessed: July 2020).

Israel, D. (2011) Do Bees Really Die After They Sting You? , Mental Floss. Available at: https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/28802/do-bees-really-die-after-they-sting-you (Accessed: August 2020).

Why Do Honey Bees Die After They Sting You? (2011) Earth Sky. Available at: https://earthsky.org/earth/why-do-bees-die-after-they-sting-you (Accessed: August 2020).