Why Do Bees Sting?

Bees sting only when provoked. 

When a bee stings, the stinging barb  sticks in the skin of her victim so that when the bee flies, the flight pulls her guts out, and she dies.  Bees sting only when provoked.

            What provokes a bee?  Opening the hive, knocking on the hive, moving the hive and standing directly in front of a bee flying alerts the bees or in the case of standing in a flight path, a single be,  to fight status.   

Who are the fighters in the beehive?  Every  hive assigns guard duty to a selection of the bees in residence.  When the guard bees note aggressive actions pertaining to the hive box, they emit pheromones that alert all bees to react to the aggression, meaning fly out of their hive and attack the aggressor. 

            How do beekeepers limit  triggering the alarm mechanism in the beehive?  (note I said “limit” and not  “avoid.”)  The work of a beekeeper involves opening the hive boxes to check on the health of the bees, to medicate the bees, to split a hive, to requeen a hive, to lift off the honey supers.  Each of these actions sends a message to the guard bees to emit the alarm pheromones, and then thousands of  bees swiftly charge out of the hive to dissuade the intruder from interfering with the bee’s lives and their work.

6 methods beekeepers practice when working in the apiary

  1. Use smoke.  Beekeepers burn a natural material like wood chips, raw cotton, dried grasses in their smoker, and when working with the bees they send a stream of smoke around the hive and into the hive.  Smoke appears to calm the bees, and many of them return to the hive.  The smoke dilutes the pheromones sent out by the guard bees and may dilute or confuse the “fight” message.
  1. Wash hands and gloves between working each hive because pheromones carried to the next hive send alarm signals to the bees.          
  1. Beekeepers work their hives in mid-day (the hottest part of the day) when the majority of the 6,000+ bees per hive are out collecting honey and pollen.  By late afternoon all bees return to the hive, and any intrusion will trigger aggressive behavior from a full house of bees.
  1. Observing expert beekeepers work their hives is similar to watching a slow dance. Beekeepers slow down and work with care  and quietly  so they don’t alarm the bees.
  1. Wear light colors around a beehive. Dark colors alarm the bees.  Bee suits are made of a thick white cotton for a reason.
photo by Don Brockmeier
photo by Don Brockmeier
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