That's the question PBS Newshour asked Extension apiculturist (retired) Eric Mussen of the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology for its "Just Ask" feature.
Mussen, who retired in June after 38 years of service but continues to maintain an office in Briggs Hall on the UC Davis campus, has been stung plenty of times. And the whole world knew it when this photo of "The Sting" (below) went viral.
When a bee stings, it cannot remove its barbed stinger without yanking out its abdominal tissue, aka "guts." It's basically a suicide mission in defense of its hive. Of the three castes in the colony, only the female worker bee dies when it stings. The queen can sting multiple times. The drone (male) has no stinger.
The stinger is hollow and pointed, like a hypodermic needle, Mussen told PBS Newshour reporter Anna Christiansen. The stinger, he explained, contains two rows of lancets, or saw-toothed blades.
Christianson also quoted Mark Winston, biologist and author of Bee Time: Lessons from the Hive (Harvard University Press) as saying that the blades alternate, “scissoring together into your flesh."
"It looks — and works — like a screw anchor, meaning that once in, the stinger can't retract," Christianson wrote. "Muscles connect the stinger to a venom sac, from which a cell-destroying toxin is pumped into the hole."
Mussen further explains bee stings in a UC Statewide Integrated Pest Management (UC IPM) Pest Note, Bee and Wasp Stings.
"Stingers are effective weapons because they deliver a venom that causes pain when injected into the skin," Mussen wrote. "The major chemical responsible for this is melittin; it stimulates the nerve endings of pain receptors in the skin. The result is a very uncomfortable sensation, which begins as a sharp pain that lasts a few minutes and then becomes a dull ache. Even up to a few days later, the tissue may still be sensitive to the touch."
"The body responds to stings by liberating fluid from the blood to flush venom components from the area. This causes redness and swelling at the sting site. If this isn't the first time the person has been stung by that species of insect, it is likely that the immune system will recognize the venom and enhance the disposal procedure. This can lead to very large swelling around the sting site or in a whole portion of the body. The area is quite likely to itch. Oral and topical antihistamines should help prevent or reduce the itching and swelling. Try not to rub or scratch the sting site, because microbes from the surface of the skin could be introduced into the wound, resulting in an infection."
Mussen says that nearly everyone has been stung by an insect at one time or another., and for beekeepers, it comes with the occupation. "It's an unpleasant experience that people hope not to repeat, but for most people the damage inflicted is only temporary pain," Mussen wrote. "Only a very limited portion of the population—one to two people out of 1,000—is allergic or hypersensitive to bee or wasp stings. Although this publication is about stings from bees and wasps, the information pertains to stings from fire ants as well."
He warns that it is important to remove the stinger immediately because the venom will continue to pump for 45 to 60 seconds following a sting. Mussen usually scrapes and removes the stinger with a fingernail. "Much has been written about the proper way to remove a bee stinger, but new information indicates it doesn't matter how you get it out as long as it is removed as soon as possible. Fingernails or the edge of a credit card are both effective tools. If a stinger is removed within 15 seconds of the sting, the severity of the sting is reduced."
When a honey bee stings you, she makes the supreme sacrifice and dies. She's usually defending her colony. In the process, she leaves behind part of her abdomen. A beekeeper simply scrapes the sting with a fingernail or a hive tool to stop the pulsating venom and continues working.
But is it ever possible for a bee to "unscrew the sting?"
A beginning beekeeper asked Extension apiculturist Eric Mussen of the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology, that very question last week.
She prefaced her question this way: "Richard Dawkins wrote in his biography that he observed a bee working her stinger out of his hand--unscrewing, so to speak--thereby not losing her stinger or her life. Is this true? I'm just a beginning beekeeper but have read many books on the subject and have never come across this interesting bit of information."
Mussen has been asked thousands of questions about bees since he joined the UC Davis faculty in 1976. Bee stings are just one of the topics. Like all beekeepers, he's been stung many times. It's no big deal. However, one documented bee sting (below) turned out to be rather a big deal. It went viral. (It went from winning a feature photo contest sponsored by the Association for Communication Excellence (ACE), an international association of communicators, educators and information technologists, to being named the Huffington Post's "Most Amazing Photos of 2012"; one of the Sacramento Bee's top 10 news stories of 2012; and My Science Academy's top photos of the year. Along the way, scores of websites named it "Picture of the Day." It also will appear in a number of books.)
The photo (taken by yours truly) shows Mussen being stung by a bee in the apiary of the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility on Bee Biology Road, UC Davis. At the time, we were walking through the apiary when he noticed a bee loudly buzzing around him. "Get your camera ready, Kathy," he said. "The bee's going to sting me."
That's exactly what the bee did. If you look closely, you can see the abdominal tissue, aka "guts," as she's trying to pull away. Usually a bee sting is a clean break.
So, can a bee "unscrew the sting?"
"As you may know, the sting of an adult worker honey bee has backward-pointing barbs that tend to hold the bee sting in the victim's flesh," Mussen told the beekeeper. "However, how well the sting stays stuck depends upon how deeply it was pushed in. Yes, some bees seem to make only a half-hearted effort to sting. The point of the sting pierces the skin, but doesn't go in very deeply. At that point, the sting can be pulled out if the bee begins to leave. It goes back up, inside the bee, but I do not know if, or how much, damage was done to the bee."
"These half-hearted stings are more commonly encountered with quite young workers. Sometimes the sting remains, but no venom is felt. Sometimes, a slight tinge of venom is momentarily noticed, then it is gone. So, while most stings are the full-blown, driven-pretty-deep-into-the-flesh type, there are less assertive attempts that result in intermediate sting results. The sting cannot be 'unscrewed,' because the barbs on the sting are directly across from each other and not in a spiral. However, the barbs are larger as the sting penetrates deeper."/span>
Published by Wicwas Press of Kalamazoo, Mich., it doubles as a university textbook and a "how-to" resource for beekeepers. It's also a great book for those interested in learning more about honey bees and their biology and behavior.
We first met Caron and Connor at a Western Apicultural Society meeting in 2009 in Healdburg, Calif. Caron holds a Ph.D. from Cornell University, and Connor received his doctorate in entomology from Michigan State University. At the time Caron was a professor/Extension entomologist with the University of Delaware. He is now retired and living in Oregon.
Connor's credentials include Extension entomologist at The Ohio State University, president of Genetic Systems, Inc. in Labelle Fla., a bee breeding firm; and owner/operator of Beekeeping Education Service and Wicwas Press. A prolific author, he's published many books and articles.
Both are on the "bee speakers' circuit," so to speak. They know bees!
Their 20-chapter book delves into such topics as sociality, honey bee anatomy, dance language communication, pheromone communication, foraging and bee botany, the honey harvest, pollination, bee mites, and diseases and pests, to name a few.
Yes, the book touches on bee stings. (As an aside, isn't it a shame that when many people think of "honey bees," they think first of "stings," rather than pollination, bee products and amazing superorganism? For beekeepers, stings just come with the territory.)
"Beekeepers often become complacent about bee stings; they are a normal occurrence of keeping bee colonies," Caron/Connor write. "With an increase in the number of stings, beekeepers become less reactive to the stings. They are a fact of life; something to tolerate as a beekeeper."
Caron/Conner not only recommend that you grab the smoker and puff smoke on the sting site but "Withdraw from the open colony and rub or wash the site with water to remove the chemical odor."
How to relive the pain? Personally, I use a meat tenderizer. Write Caron/Connor: "Apply an over-the counter sting relief remedy or a cool compress, ice, mud, or meat tenderizer to provide some relief."
The bee sting photo (taken by yours truly and published in the Caron/Conner book) shows a Carniolan bee owned by bee breeder-geneticist Susan Cobey, stinging Eric Mussen. What you see is the bee's abdominal tissue as it tries to pull away. At the time, we were walking through the apiary at the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility at UC Davis, and the bee became defensive. "Kathy, get your camera, ready," Mussen said. "The bee's going to sting me."
Usually a bee sting is a clean break.
Speaking of breaks, bee scientists and beekeepers are gearing up for the next Western Apicultural Society meeting, to be held Oct. 16-19 in Santa Fe, N.M.
Mussen, a founder and five-time president of the organization, says the organization was "designed specifically to meet the educational needs of beekeepers from the states of Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming; the provinces of Alberta, British Columbia, Saskatchewan, and the Yukon; and the states of northern Mexico."
Membership, however, is open to all interested persons--beekeepers and non-beekeepers alike.
Beekeepers consider stings just a part of their job.
However, say the word "bee" and John Q. and Jane Q. Public may not think about the pollination of fruits, vegetables and nuts. Or the end product: honey.
The bee conjures up the "S" word: sting.
Of the scores of questions that Extension Apiculturist Eric Mussen has fielded since 1976 (when he joined the UC Davis Department of Entomology faculty), many relate to bee stings.
Here are his answers to some of the most commonly asked questions:
1. Can a honey bee sting kill you?
If a person is highly sensitized to honey bee venom, one sting could be fatal, causing anaphylactic shock. Otherwise, it is just painful and likely to cause some swelling and local tenderness that will last for two or three days.
2. How do you treat a honey bee sting?
Try to remove honey bee stings as quickly as possible, since venom is pumped from a sting into the victim for 45-60 seconds. Stings are easily scraped off with a fingernail. If many honey bees are stinging, leave the area quickly and deal with the stings when you are out of range of the defensive area (about 100 feet with European honey bees, but up to ¼ mile – 1,320 feet – with Africanized honey bees). The pain can be reduced a bit by putting ice on the sting site, but the stabbing pain backs off fairly quickly without any treatment.
3. Can a honey bee hear you?
Honey bees do not have sensory organs that can pick up sounds that we can hear. They are very sensitive to vibrations. They feel us walking toward the nesting site before we get there.
4. Why do beekeepers use smokers when they visit their beehives?
The smoke from the smoker has three effects on the bees. First, it prevents the guard bees from liberating much “alarm pheromone” (smells like bananas) in the hive. Second, it prevents “soldier” bees in the hive from smelling the pheromone that has been secreted. Third, it causes many bees to fill up on honey. Despite the wives’ tales to the contrary, there is no reason to believe that the bees “think” there is a fire or that bees full of honey cannot sting.
5. Can honey bees see color?
Yes, honey bees can see nearly all the colors we see. They cannot see red, which looks black to them. They can see into the UV wavelengths a ways, which is beyond our limit at purple. UV looks black to us.
6. Do honey bees need to eat meat?
No. Unlike wasps, honey bees derive nearly all the important ingredients in their diet from pollens. Pollens contain protein, fats, vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, sterols, and many plant-derived antioxidants. No single pollen contains all the essential ingredients, so colonies do best where a good mix of attractive flowers are available. Nectar, the dilute sugar syrup honey bees collect from flowers, contains mostly sugar, an energy food. The flavor and color of honey depend upon the source of the nectar from which it is condensed.
There you have it: The A, Bee and C of the most commonly asked questions.
Bottom line: Sure, bees can and do sting, but our survival depends on them. Bees pollinate one-third of the food we eat (fruits, vegetables and nuts). They pollinate some 100 crops in California, including about 700,000 acres of almonds.
“The value of California crops pollinated by bees is $6.1 billion,” Mussen says.