To sting, or not to sting? Well, that depends on a few different things… At the Native Pollinator Initiative, we are often asked if bumble bees can sting, and if they really do die after stinging you. We’d like to take this opportunity to answer some of the more common questions we get, and to clear a few things up!

1. Bumble bees CAN sting! To avoid a painful sting, leave them BEE!

Bumble bees, originally known as “humble bees”, are naturally very gentle insects that will only act aggressively when they feel threatened. If you see a bumble bee, leave it be! Most bumble bee stings occur when you are near the entrance to their nest. If you’ve followed our blogs, you know that Hayley, our Program Biologist, is studying the nesting ecology of bumble bees – and that means getting up close and personal with their nests. When Hayley checks in on the nest boxes, she regularly finds bumble bee workers defending the nest. When she gets too close, they can get a little defensive. Keep reading to see what happens to her when she gets stung!

A common eastern bumble bee queen (B. impatiens) guarding the entrance to her underground nest (left). Two confusing bumble bee workers (B. perplexus) protecting the entrance to their above ground nest (right). Photos © Hayley Tompkins

2. Bumble bees and honey bees have different stingers, and not all bees die when they sting you, in fact, very few actually do!

Honey bee and bumble bee stings can both be quite painful (just ask Hayley!). To those of us who are sensitive to it (almost all of us!), the venom that is injected into the skin when these bees sting has an effect on our blood vessels, causing localized swelling, itchiness and pain. If you’ve had the unfortunate experience of being stung by a bumble bee, you may have noticed that after stinging you, it flew away. That’s because the stinger of a bumble bee is straight, like a pin. Honey bees, on the other hand, have a barbed stinger. When a honey bee stings you, the stinger becomes anchored in your skin, and when a she tries to free herself, she will die because it will tear out her insides. And you thought the bee sting was painful!

A bumble bee’s stinger is straight like a pin (left), unlike the stinger of a honey bee, which is barbed (right). Photos © Left: Carlo Bueza. Right: Rose-Lynn Fisher

3. Only female bumble bees can sting!

If you’ve been paying really close attention so far, you might have noticed that when we talk about stinging bees, we always use “she” and not “he”. That’s because only female bees can sting! A bee’s stinger is a modified egg-laying structure, or ovipositor, so only females are capable of stinging. If you are REALLY confident differentiating between males and females, you could scoop up a male bee from a flower and not get stung! This is one of our favourite party tricks, but we want to remind you to NOT try this without the supervision of an experienced entomologist!

Genevieve (left) knows her males from her females, and it’s a good thing she does! Photo © Sarah Litterick. Hayley (centre & right) was stung a few times in 2018 while inspecting her nest boxes. Although she was in some pain, she knew that the bees were only doing their job – defending the nest from intruders! Photos © Hayley Tompkins

The best way to avoid getting stung is to leave the humble bumble bees where they are. If you don’t bother them, they won’t bother you! Thanks for checking in with us, and we hope you enjoyed learning a little bit about stings!

– The Bumble Bee Recovery Program