Kamikaze Bees

Pretty much all bees have stingers on them or “stings” in general.  Also, pretty much all bees sting to defend themselves and their nests.  This is pretty well established.

However, what most people don’t realize is that not all bees lose the sting once they have used it to sting something else.  As a matter of fact, pretty much only Honey bees, Apis mellifera, lose their sting due to having it literally ripped from their body along with the venom sac after having stung something else.

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A honey bee stinging
Through different studies, we’re pretty much convinced that honey bees actually know they are going to die when they sting.  They know it and they do it anyway.  In Japanese, “Kamikaze” means, “Divine Winds”  referring usually to hurricanes an such.  I’ve heard it they looked on Kamikaze airplane fighter pilots as being a special attack wreaking terrible destruction.  This, I think, is a pretty interesting description of what damage can be done to an opponent when you are willing to go to such dramatic feats to not just defeat the enemy but utterly eliminate them.  Think of the devastation a hurricane can do.

A honey bee, knowing it gives it’s life in it’s sting to defend nest and self is essentially going all out, literally giving it’s everything to overcome the perceived enemy at any cost.  I think the concept of a swarm of bees taking to the air in order to not just defend the colony from attack but to make that enemy entirely go away is true to the concept of Kamikaze.  Just about everything that has taken to raiding a honey bee hive, from wild bears to human beekeepers and everything in between,  has learned to regret that decision as it runs as far away as fast as it can.

Not all bees lose their stings, oh no, pretty much all the rest can keep going back to give a gift that keeps on giving until the threat removes itself.  Bumblebees are known as exceedingly docile and calm out in the flowers.  There’s a time though when those bumblebees can attack ferociously if you are interfering with their nest.  Not only will they come out to sting in defense, they retain the sting and just coming in again and again and again, etc…

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A bumblebee dealing out a sting.

Honey bees don’t always lose their sting though.  It depends on what they are stinging.  If they sting another honey bee for example or something of similar size and makeup, they will mostly keep the sing instead of having it pulled out and dying.  In larger, thicker skinned creatures though, the tiny barbs that are on the sting will catch and not only stick in to be yanked out of the bee, they continue the attack after the bee has detached.

Oh yes, the honey bee stinger is actually a more complicated thing than a simple barbed needle.  In fact, it is two needles working together in a piston-like motion so that once inserted into the body of a victim, they continue to dig themselves in even deeper giving more direct access to the venom in the connected venom sac that came off with the sting.  A good reason to never pinch the sting to remove it is because by doing so, often more venom is injected by squeezing the ven0m sac along with the sting.  Scrape that sting out with a knife, plastic card, even a fingernail instead.

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Getting down to the business end of the stinger.
That isn’t the end to the mischief the honey bee has wrought in stinging though.  Oh no!  It’s not done done with us yet.  Not only does it’s stinger get physically, forcibly removed from it’s body, leaving it in our body.  Not only does the sting continue to dig deeper into the skin to deliver its venom more effectively.  While she has indeed gone off to die, the little worker bee who has wounded us so, she has also left a chemical marker scent upon us.  A pheromone that acts as a beacon to other honey bee workers flying to the defense.  We are now not only wounded, we are now tagged so that the other bees have a persistent pheromonal version of GPS straight to us.  That’s right, running will avail us little safety, we are marked and they will come to finish the job.  Sounds ominous doesn’t it?  It’s a good thing they aren’t overly persistent.

Most of the time, if we can get anywhere from 20 to 100 yards away (depending on the breed of bee) they will consider having done their job sufficiently and removed the immediate threat and call the forces back home.  Whew!  This is actually true of pretty much all stinging bees.  They really don’t intend to utterly eliminate us, just remove the immediate threat.  Once the perpetrator clears out of the immediate area, most bees are fine with calling a cease fire and returning to battle stations.

In fact, there are times, again depending on the breed of honey bee, where instead of stinging immediately, they give us a warning instead.  A simple little bump, a head butt if you will.  Simply just to let us know, ” Hey pal, if you know what’s good for you, you’ll high-tail it out of here cuz playtime’s over.  Don’t make me have to tell you again.”  yes, I am anthropomorphizing but it’s more fun that way.

So now you know a little more about the stinging activity of bees.  It’s a good thing to know.  Just remember, bees don’t “attack”  they aren’t going out looking for a fight.  That would be the wasps and hornets.  No, bees just want to do their thing and be left alone.

Think of it as bees are all about, “Don’t start none, won’t bee none.”

Author: Big Bear

Owner of BBE-Tech Apiary Services and professional apiarist. Beekeeping instructor at Metro Community College. Exec. Producer, Director and Host of Bee Smart beekeeping project podcast and videos.

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