If bees sting you, do they really die?

In a word, no. While some bees will undoubtedly die, others will not.

Not all bee species are even capable of stinging.

“There are an estimated 20,000 species of bees worldwide, and not all of them sting,” Alison Ray, a PhD student in molecular and integrative cellular biology at Penn State, told Live Science in an email.

“There is a group of bees called ‘stingless bees’ (tribe Meliponini) and also ‘miner bees’ (family Andrenidae) which have stingers, but they are so reduced that they are mostly ineffective.”

more than 500 species of stingless bees (opens in a new tab), mainly found in tropical regions. Instead of stinging, they often have elaborate nest entrances to ward off invaders, said Nicholas Nieger, a molecular biologist at Washington State University who has studied bees for more than two decades.

But as for those bees that sting, what enables some to survive after releasing their defensive weapon, and what causes others to perish?

Honey bees often die as a result of stings from humans or other mammals. According to the researchers: “This is because of the anatomy of their bite. The barb gets stuck into the skin, allowing the stinger to remain in place and continue pumping venom into the hapless sting recipient.”

Close-up of a honey bee (APis mellifera) covered in pollen.

Honey bees – according to Ray Nager – do not tend to die when stung by other insects or spiders. This means that the bite stays in place.

“When a bee flies after stinging a human or mammal, the stinger detaches and the intestinal organs are stretched and separated, effectively evacuating the bee,” Ray explained. A bee that now has a hole in its abdomen “may survive for a few hours after being stung, but eventually succumbs to fluid loss and internal organ failure,” Niger added.

Nager once conducted research to confirm that honey bees—the most common bee species worldwide—cannot survive after stinging a human-like target.

“I’ve marked and returned more than 200 bees that have been stung,” he said, “and I’ve never seen a single bee alive the next morning.” This act of stinging is really fatal for the bee.

However, other bees are able to survive after stinging humans because they have different stingers than honey bees. Ray said other wasps have smooth stingers, so they can sting multiple times without dying.

Other stinging insects, such as hornets and wasps, have a similar sting that enables them to attack the same target multiple times without dying.

Beekeepers wear bee clothing and veils to protect themselves from bee stings.

It is also worth noting that not all members of the “stinging” bee species are actually capable of stinging. “Any female stinger will be female because the stinger is actually a modified ovipositor,” Ray added, or a tubular organ through which the female insect deposits her eggs.

Female bees tend to have large numbers of their male counterparts. According to a 2019 study published in the journal (opens in a new tab)The average honey bee population has a female to male ratio of about 5 to 1.

Female bees are more than happy to fight as a team if necessary.

If any threat is deemed too great for a single female bee to handle on her own, she can call on her sisters for help, said University of Florida veterinarian Dr. Marley Iredale.

“She does this by releasing an alarm pheromone that her sisters recognize as a signal to defend the colony,” Iredale told Live Science in an email.

To be a bee or not

Given the dire fate that awaits a bee after stinging a human or other thick-skinned mammal, is it possible that the bee is aware of the outcome? Are they aware of the fact that once their bite pierces the skin, they are essentially signing their own death certificate?

Niger said:

“I don’t think honeybees understand that they die when they sting, but under the right circumstances, they are very willing to give up their lives to defend the colony.” When it comes to protecting the colony or ensuring that genes are passed on to the next generation, the instincts that drive these behaviors clearly outweigh any concern the bees have for themselves.

This is something that both Iredale and Ray confirm.

Iredale agreed that bees are unlikely to be aware of the consequences of stinging humans. “But, if the bees are conscious, I really think they will willingly sacrifice themselves for the good of the hive.”