Some graffiti of a stenciled bee with stinger

Image used under Creative Commons license. Provided by Manuel Faisco.

My cousin asked me recently if bees die when they sting. I had a short and a long answer for her. (People who know me realize this is often the case).

The short answer: Yes, a typical honeybee will die when she stings you. A worker bee’s stinger is barbed, similar to a fish hook, and when she stings, it  remains in her victim’s skin. When she pulls away, her venom sac and part of her abdomen are ripped out of her tiny body. This, in turn, causes her to die.

The much longer answer: Well the above fact is true for all female worker honeybees, I must clarify the statement because not all bees die when they sting. In fact, not all bees can even sting.

Only female bees can sting. Male honeybees (drones) have no stinger at all. This is because a bee’s stinger and venom sac are associated with the female bee’s reproductive system. Drones do not have this same anatomy and are missing their stingers altogether.

Secondly, even though a female worker bee’s stinger is barbed, I should note that her barbs will only stick in skin that is fairly thick and rubbery, like a mammal’s. If she stings through a much more delicate surface, she may be able to pull her stinger out without damaging her own body. This is a case where she can sting but not die.

Lastly — and far more interestingly — the female queen honeybee does not die after stinging. She is obviously a female bee, and therefore has a stinger, however it is not barbed like the other females in the hive. The queen’s stinger is smooth and can sting and be retracted from a victim without doing any harm to herself. There are several theories as to why she has evolved this way. One plausible explanation is that she must be able to defend herself against rival queens repeatedly, and that it’s her last line of defence against an intruder who has made it into the hive.

I will finish by mentioning that honeybees are the only types of bees/wasps/hornets etc. that have strongly barbed stingers. Therefore they are the only insects in the order hymenoptera that die when they sting. All other types of bees, wasps and hornets that you encounter will likely be able to sting repeatedly without committing suicide. This applies to bumble bees and yellowjackets as well. If they’re not a honeybee, they can sting you as much as they want.