MARCH
1993

 

 

 

By
Tom Turpin
 
Professor of
Entomology
Purdue University

 

 

 

 

 

03-25-93

Beware of Insects Bearing Stings

Bees, wasps and hornets are among the most beneficial of insects. These insect cousins, members of the order Hymenoptera, are important pollinators of crops, producers of honey, and parasites and predators of pest insects. But they also have their bad side. These insects sting.

The females of bees, wasps and hornets have an ovipositor — a structure similar to a hypodermic needle that can be used to inject venom into their victims. Such a process is known as stinging. Human victims find the sensation to be less than pleasurable. In fact, most people find a bee sting to be downright painful. Definitely something to be avoided!

People who have been stung by a bee seldom pay close attention to the details of the act. However, scientists who study such things report that there are three phases to a bee sting. First is the insertion of the stinger into the victim's flesh. Then venom is injected through the hollow stinger. Finally the insect withdraws her stinger and attacks again or heads on her way.

Withdrawing the stinger is easy for hornets, wasps and bumble bees. Their stingers are smooth, hollow tubes. It is a different story entirely with honey bees. The stinger of a honey bee is equipped with barbs similar to those on a fish hook. These barbs keep the stinger from being withdrawn from the flesh of the victim. So when the honey bee stings and attempts to withdraw her stinger, she literally rips the end of her abdomen off. Stinger, poison sac and associated tissues remain in the flesh of the victim.

The difference in the stinging mechanisms of the honey bees compared to other stinging Hymenoptera have consequences for both the bee and her victim. Bumble bees, hornets and wasps can inflict multiple stings because they take their stingers with them after the attack. On the other hand, honey bees are limited to one sting.

People receiving a honey bee sting should take care removing the stinger from their skin. Grasping the stinger between the fingers and pulling it out is not a good idea. Such action squeezes the poison from the venom sac into the flesh. That was the goal of the bee, and the stung human just helps her out and increases the severity of the sting. To reduce the affect of the sting, the stinger should be removed as quickly as possible by pushing the stinger from the flesh with thumbnail or knife blade. This method keeps much of the poison in the tissues of the insect.

Someone who has been stung by a honey bee can take pleasure in the knowledge that the act has hurt the bee more than her victim. When the stinger is pulled from the abdomen of the bee, she is mortally wounded and dies soon thereafter. Stinging on the part of the honey bee has been described as the ultimate act of altruism; she gives her life to benefit her colony. For those who have suffered a sting delivered by a honey bee, it is probably tough to find much compassion for the insect. We are more likely to think good riddance!

 

Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Andrea McCann