MAY
1999

 

 

 

By
Tom Turpin
 
Professor of
Entomology
Purdue University

 

 

 

 

 

05-27-99

On Bees and Stingers

One of the more well-known characteristics of insects of the order Hymenoptera is that they sting. Not all Hymenoptera sting, but those that do certainly get our attention!

The stinging Hymenoptera include insects of three groups: bees, wasps and ants. Most people recognize that these insects include some species that live in groups called colonies. Insect colony dwellers are social insects. A hive of bees, a wasp's nest or an ant hill are frequently encountered examples of social insect colonies. 

All ants live in colonies, but many bees and wasps do not. Hymenoptera that shun the social lifestyle are known as solitary species. Most solitary bees and wasps can sting but generally do so to paralyze prey, such as caterpillars or spiders, as food for their offspring.

The social insects can be downright unsocial when it comes to the stinging habit. Social insects that sting humans or other large animals do so as a defensive measure. They are either trying to protect themselves or their nest.

Stinging insects away from their nest are unlikely to be aggressive. Bees visiting a flower or wasps searching for a caterpillar are quite docile—unless they are physically restrained. Then they will use their stinger to protect themselves.

Stingers of insects are modified egg-laying devices called ovipositors. So only female insects sting. In most social insect colonies, the workers are non-reproductive females with stingers. In general, these are the social insects humans most often encounter since they, as their name suggests, do the work.

In bumble bees and honey bees, the males are called drones and can be handled without fear of being stung. Of course, you need to be able to tell the male from the female. In honey bees, the drones are larger than the workers. In bumble bees, the males have much larger eyes than their sisters. These characteristics aren't of much help, unless the males and females are side by side for observation.

In carpenter bees and cicada-killer hornets, the males pretend like they can sting. They will actually land on a person and act like they are stinging with their abdomen. It is all a show. A show that works, because most animals aren't willing to find out if the insect is a he or a she by being stung!

The goal of the stinging insect is to inject poison into the offending animal. The stinger is just the needle to do the job. Honey bee stingers are barbed. When the stinger is jabbed into the skin, the barbs—like those on a fish hook—keep the stinger from being removed. When the bee leaves, she pulls the end of her abdomen off. This results in the death of the bee. This action has been called the ultimate act of altruism—giving your life for the good of the colony. The human equivalent is a soldier's loss of life in wartime.

Stingers of bumble bees and wasps are sharp, smooth needles without barbs. Consequently, these bees and wasps can sting multiple times.

In all instances, it is best not to disturb nests of bees and wasps. They are likely to protect the colony at your expense. As Hoosier Poet James Whitcomb Riley once penned in reference to a bumble bee: “Ef you don't think they can sting—you'll see!”

 

Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox