The Sting

Aug 6, 2009

Beekeepers consider stings just a part of their job.

However, say the word "bee" and John Q. and Jane Q. Public may not think about the pollination of fruits, vegetables and nuts. Or the end product: honey.

The bee conjures up the "S" word: sting.

Of the scores of questions that Extension Apiculturist Eric Mussen has fielded since 1976 (when he joined the UC Davis Department of Entomology faculty), many relate to bee stings.

Here are his answers to some of the most commonly asked questions:

1. Can a honey bee sting kill you?

If a person is highly sensitized to honey bee venom, one sting could be fatal, causing anaphylactic shock.  Otherwise, it is just painful and likely to cause some swelling and local tenderness that will last for two or three days.

2. How do you treat a honey bee sting?

Try to remove honey bee stings as quickly as possible, since venom is pumped from a sting into the victim for 45-60 seconds.  Stings are easily scraped off with a fingernail.  If many honey bees are stinging, leave the area quickly and deal with the stings when you are out of range of the defensive area (about 100 feet with European honey bees, but up to ¼ mile – 1,320 feet – with Africanized honey bees).  The pain can be reduced a bit by putting ice on the sting site, but the stabbing pain backs off fairly quickly without any treatment.

3. Can a honey bee hear you?

Honey bees do not have sensory organs that can pick up sounds that we can hear.  They are very sensitive to vibrations.  They feel us walking toward the nesting site before we get there.

4. Why do beekeepers use smokers when they visit their beehives?

The smoke from the smoker has three effects on the bees.  First, it prevents the guard bees from liberating much “alarm pheromone” (smells like bananas) in the hive.  Second, it prevents “soldier” bees in the hive from smelling the pheromone that has been secreted.  Third, it causes many bees to fill up on honey.  Despite the wives’ tales to the contrary, there is no reason to believe that the bees “think” there is a fire or that bees full of honey cannot sting.

5. Can honey bees see color?

Yes, honey bees can see nearly all the colors we see.  They cannot see red, which looks black to them.  They can see into the UV wavelengths a ways, which is beyond our limit at purple.  UV looks black to us.

6. Do honey bees need to eat meat?

No.  Unlike wasps, honey bees derive nearly all the important ingredients in their diet from pollens.  Pollens contain protein, fats, vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, sterols, and many plant-derived antioxidants.  No single pollen contains all the essential ingredients, so colonies do best where a good mix of attractive flowers are available.  Nectar, the dilute sugar syrup honey bees collect from flowers, contains mostly sugar, an energy food.  The flavor and color of honey depend upon the source of the nectar from which it is condensed.

There you have it: The A, Bee and C of the most commonly asked questions.

Bottom line: Sure, bees can and do sting, but our survival depends on them. Bees pollinate one-third of the food we eat (fruits, vegetables and nuts). They pollinate some 100 crops in California, including about 700,000 acres of almonds.

“The value of California crops pollinated by bees is $6.1 billion,” Mussen says.

By Kathy Keatley Garvey
Author - Communications specialist

Attached Images:

CLOSE-UP of a bee sting. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)


THIS WHITE BUMP is the site of a bee sting, about 20 hours old. Beekeepers generally consider stings just a part of the job. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Site of the Sting