JULY
2003

 

 

 

By
Tom Turpin
 
Professor of
Entomology
Purdue University

 

 

 

 

 

07-10-03

A Bee or Not a Bee -- That is the Stinging Question!

When it comes to bees, almost everyone has an opinion. Most of those opinions are on the negative side. And for good reason--bees can sting! Consequently, many people associate bees with stings. And stings, or the potential for stings, are not on most folks' "top 10" list of favorite things.

In general, a bee sting is painful and results in swelling and discomfort in the affected area for a few days. However, some people are allergic to bee venom, and, for them, a sting might be fatal.

If you happen to get stung by an insect, say "ouch" or "pickle" or some other appropriate descriptive term, and then remove the stinger if it is still in your skin. It is a good idea to wash the sting area as soon as possible since infection sometimes results from a sting. Put ice on the sting to reduce pain and swelling.

Be alert to symptoms other than pain, itching and a small area of redness and swelling. Symptoms that might indicate an allergic reaction are large areas of swelling, abnormal breathing, tightness in throat or chest, dizziness, hives, fainting, nausea or vomiting, or persistent pain or swelling. If such symptoms occur, medical attention is advised.

Of course, avoiding bee stings is a good policy, and something most of us try to do. Under the category of the obvious is that the best way to avoid bee stings is to avoid bees! But in the summertime, that is easier said than done.

Not all stinging insects are bees. In fact, some of the most common insects that sting are wasps and hornets.

One such hornet that stings is known as a yellow jacket. These yellow and black insects resemble honey bees in size and color. So when yellow jackets frequent picnics, ball games and fairs in August and September in search of food, many people incorrectly call them bees. 

It doesn't matter if a stinging insect is a bee or a wasp, the venom is injected into the victim through a modified ovipositor. Ovipositors are egg-laying devices of insects. Egg production is a function of female insects so that means only female insects have the equipment to sting. Hence, all stinging insects are females.

The stinger on a honey bee is a barbed affair, sort of like a harpoon. Those barbs will prevent the stinger from being withdrawn from the skin of a mammal. That means that when a honey bee stings a human, it generally hurts the bee worse than the human. You see, when the bee tries to fly away from its victim, it literally rips its rear end off. And it dies. Only honey bees have barbed stingers. Bumble bees, wasps and hornets lack barbs on their stingers and can infect venom multiple times.

So why do bees, wasps and hornets sting? To defend themselves or their colony, that's why. So the best way to avoid bee stings is to not antagonize female bees. Don't bother their nests, and don't swat at them when they are flying around you or the flowers in the garden. Stinging insects don't go out looking for a fight, but, if you make them mad, you are likely to pay the price!

 

Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox