FEBRUARY
1997

 

 

 

By
Tom Turpin
 
Professor of
Entomology
Purdue University

 

 

 

 

 

02-13-97

Not All Bees and Wasps Sting

The first thing that comes to most people's minds when they hear the word bee or wasp is sting! Yes, the ability to sting is one of the notable characteristics of these insects. Not all bees and wasps sting, though. In fact, most species of bees and wasps never sting humans. However, those that do provide the reputation for all of the rest.

Those bees and wasps that sting do so with a modified ovipositor. Ovipositors are structures that female insects use to lay eggs. Mostly insects use their ovipositors to insert eggs into such things as soil or plant tissue. Some wasps have ovipositors that are used to insert their eggs into other insects, where their babies feed on the innards of the victim. These wasps are called parasites, and when they attack pest insects we call them biological control agents.

Some of the parasitic wasps also have glands that produce poison used to paralyze prey insects. Wasps that use their stingers in this way are said to sting offensively. They sting to provide food for their offspring.

At some point in the past, some wasps probably started to use their sting and their poison gland to protect themselves and their nests. Such stinging is called defensive stinging. These are the wasps that will sting humans. Bees that sting are all defensive stingers. No bees sting to provide food for their offspring.

So which bees and wasps sting and which don't? Of the hundreds of species of bees and wasps, only a very few will sting humans. Those that sting are generally the largest of these insects. Some of the stinging wasps include most of the so-called paper wasps. These insects fashion their nests from chewed wood, hence their name. They include bald-faced hornets, yellow jackets and the paper wasps that many times construct their nests under the eaves or windowsills of a house. In general, the mud daubers do not sting, except in the rare instance where someone will pick one up in their hand.

Among the bees, the most common stingers are the bumble bees and the honey bees. Another common stinging bee is a small metallic-colored bee called a sweat bee. Named after its habit of gathering sweat, it will sting when it is touched, such as with a hand or a fold of clothing. Such a sting normally prompts a response from the human — a slap that just adds insult to injury, since the stinging bee has normally already flown away.

Even among the bee and wasp species that sting, not all individuals are able to do so. You see, stinging among insects is a female thing. It takes a modified ovipositor to sting, and males don't have the proper equipment. Among most of the bees and wasps, a high percentage of individuals are females and can sting. However, half of the well-known bumble bees are male. So if you happen to sit on a bumble bee, you have a 50/50 chance of not getting stung!

 

Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Andrea McCann