As summer finally takes a hold the sunny weather brings the familiar sight and sound of bees. It’s also a time when some people seem to lose all sense of sanity and can often be seen flailing limbs, screaming or even running for their lives at the mere mention of the word “bee”. Many of our fears are engrained from childhood, passed down from an equally scared adult, or from tall tales of people being pursued by ‘killer bees’. In fact none of our UK bees are considered aggressive and are far more interested in going about their daily business of foraging for pollen and nectar than chasing you down the street in order to sting you. Ironically, our use of chemicals, intensive farming and continued removal of habitat make us far more of a danger to bees than they could ever be to us. So unless you suffer from a severe anaphylactic reaction to bee venom there really is no need to panic.
European Honeybee (Apis mellifera)
European honeybees are not aggressive by nature and will only sting you if you squash them e.g. sit on them, or if you try to remove their honey store, the latter being the reason why the vast majority of people stung by honeybees are beekeepers. Honeybee workers have a barbed sting so when it pierces the skin the stinger is ripped from the body of the bee, along with the venom sac and some of its internal organs, causing its rapid demise. This alone should tell you that when a honeybee stings it really is as a last resort. The queen however, has a smooth stinger which she can remove and re-use.
|Honeybee (Apis mellifera,) Photo credit: Ryan Harris|
|Honeybee stinger with barbed edges, Photo credit: Helen Morse|
Bumblebees (Bombus sp.)
If you do manage to get stung by a bumblebee then you are very unlucky and have probably either disturbed its nest or sat/stood on it. Bumblebees are very docile and it takes a lot to make them angry. Only the females (queens and workers) will sting, males do not possess a stinger as they have no need for one. They leave the nest shortly after hatching and from that moment on they only have one thing on their mind! In many of the common bumblebee species the males can be identified by the conspicuous yellow hairs on their face and the lack of a pollen basket of their hind leg, they also have and extra antennal segment (13 as opposed to 12 for females) and are a lot more laid back than the workers who will be frantically buzzing from one flower to the next gathering pollen and nectar.
|Male Early bumblebee (Bombus pratorum) with yellow hairs on his face, Photo credit: Gail Hampshire|
So how do you know if you've upset a bumblebee?
If you get too close to a bumblebee and it feels threatened it will raise a middle leg. In our language this roughly translates to "back off". If this doesn't deter you they may raise another leg or turn their backs to show you their sting. This behaviour rarely leads to a sting and the bee will usually fly away if threatened further. It is also thought that bumblebees react to the carbon dioxide in our breath so if you want to take a closer look then it may be advisable not to breathe on them.
|Bumblebee showing a raised leg as a warning signal, Photo credit: Lynne Osgathorpe|
If you are unlucky enough to be stung the bumblebee stinger is not barbed like the honeybee and so can be withdrawn and reused without causing any damage to the bee.
|Bumblebee stinger, Photo credit: Helen Morse|
|Tawny mining bee (Andrena fulva), Photo credit: Richard Burkmar|
The UK has around 250 species of solitary bee. Although the females can sting, only a few such as Sweat bees (Halictus and Lasioglossum), Leafcutter bees (Megachile) and Mason bees (Osmia) possess a stinger that is capable of piercing the skin. These bees are so docile that you would have to handle them very roughly in order for them to sting you and if they do manage to pierce the skin the sting is very weak and ineffective on humans. Solitary bees, as the name suggests, do not have thousands of mouths to feed and large honey stores to protect so they have no need for powerful stings. Like bumblebees and honeybee queens, solitary bees possess a smooth stinger which can be removed and re-used and only the females can sting. It is extremely rare for someone to be stung by a solitary bee and I personally know of one person (Lynne) who has had that privilege!