Yes, bees are friendly and don’t attack or sting without being provoked. However, some factors can shape the defensive response of bees, like genetics and their roles in the colony.
Unfortunately, the perception that bees are not friendly has spread over the years. There are even movies about killer bees that infest towns and sting people to death.
But the truth is, bees are very busy minding their own business and won’t sting people unless they have a solid reason.
Knowing more about bees and their behavior will help you avoid this painful experience. Hopefully, it will raise awareness so people will protect bees and stay out of their way instead of killing them.
Why Do Bees Sting Or Attack Humans?
The fact that bees are friendly doesn’t mean they won’t defend themselves from potential threats and intruders.
The hive or nest is the home of a bee colony. It’s where they store honey and other resources to feed themselves. It’s also where the queen always remains and lays her eggs.
So, defending the hive is extremely important. Honeybees have developed very effective defense mechanisms that protect the hive from attackers, including big predators like bears – or us!
Standing close to their hive and manipulating it is the number one reason behind a bee attack. Doing this is guaranteed to arouse a defensive response from bees.
Other factors that raise their alarms are color, vibration, and motion because this is how they identify intruders in the wild.
Dark colors similar to natural predators like skunks, bears, and badgers will raise their alarms more than others, which is why beekeepers generally wear white suits.
Sudden and rough movements can also make bees less friendly and more defensive. When approaching and manipulating a hive, slow and careful movements are likely to avoid raising their defense response.
What Makes Bees Less Friendly?
Overall, honeybees are friendly when they aren’t being threatened. However, some factors can make a group more or less defensive towards people.
Their Roles In The Colony
Every colony has three types of bees, and each has a specific job. Only female bees have a stinger, and therefore if you come across a drone, it won’t be able to sting you – their central role is to mate with the queen.
Among the worker bees, some have the task of guarding the hive against intruders that may steal their resources or hurt the brood and queen. They guard the hive’s entrance and make the first line of defense.
Genetic Traits Of A Colony
Different colonies may react to attackers more aggressively than others.
A small group of bees may respond to an intruder or potential threat in a ‘friendlier’ colony, while a more ‘hostile’ colony can have a larger group of bees responding to threats.
The ‘aggressiveness’ trait of a queen will be inherited by its brood and, therefore, can determine the defensiveness level of a whole colony.
This link with genetics has a very famous example – the Africanized honeybees AKA ‘Killer Bees’.
European Honeybee vs. Africanized Honeybee
Africanized honeybees have gained a bad reputation due to their more aggressive defense response than European Honeybees.
This subspecies of honeybees resulted from the crossbreeding between the European and the East African honeybee (A. m. Scutellata) after its introduction in the Americas in the 1950s.
Studies into the difference in behavior between the European and the Africanized honeybees indicate the latter shows lower thresholds of response and the ability to react more intensively, faster, and in more significant numbers to defensive stimuli. But, overall, both have a similar sequence and organization of defensive behavior.
This means Africanized Honeybees won’t attack if you don’t give them a reason, but they are less tolerant of you approaching their hive and will respond to threats more aggressively.
Specifically, Africanized honeybees:
- react defensively to intruders being 328 ft. away (100 m) away or more from the hive and pursue them for a few miles or km.
- Sting 4 to 10 times more frequently, and
- chase intruders with 10 to 30 times more bees than the European honeybees.
Special Or Temporary Circumstances
Other events might make a colony of bees more aggressive, like not having enough nectar or no queen present.
This article outlines factors to explain why your bees are suddenly aggressive.
How To Prevent Being Attacked By Bees
Prevention is better than cure. If you don’t want to deal with painful bee stings, avoid disturbing them and getting too close to their nest.
Be aware of your surroundings and pay attention to signs of a hive nearby, like buzzing sounds and bees coming and going from a particular spot. Be particularly cautious around water sources as bees need water to regulate the temperature and humidity.
If you are going to areas where you know there may be bees, it’s recommended to wear lighter colors and avoid perfumes and colognes.
Whenever you are getting too close for comfort, guard bees will warn you by bumping against your body without stinging. Pay attention when you notice this behavior; you may be approaching a hive and need to distance yourself.
What To Do If You Get Attacked By Bees
Not disturbing bees and their hive is the best way to avoid getting attacked by them, but sometimes you may encounter a particularly defensive colony or get too close to it by accident.
If bees attack you, you can follow some recommendations to avoid a more aggressive response. This is especially important if you suspect a colony of Africanized honeybees may be around.
- Do not kill the bee or bees attacking you. This will only increase the release of alarm pheromones and attract more to the site.
- Do not attempt to swat away the bees or wave your arms, as this might provoke a more aggressive response.
- Get away from the area and go to an enclosed space. If you are near a building or a car, go inside. If this is not an option, keep running until they stop chasing you.
- Cover sensitive areas like the eyes, mouth, nose, and ears. If you have a coat or jacket, put it on your head to avoid getting stung in your face. Be careful not to obstruct your vision when running!
- If you got stung, remove the stinger from your skin by scraping instead of pinching the stinger. This will prevent the release of venom, and fewer bees will be appealed to sting you. When bees sting a target, their stinger stays in the skin, emitting an alarm pheromone attracting nearby bees.
- Seek medical attention, especially if you are allergic or suspect you could be. Bee stings can result in anaphylactic shock, which can be fatal.
Can bees become friends with Humans?
Bees’ Face-Recognition Skills
Usually, when people ask if bees are friendly, they want to know how likely they are to sting people. But what if they can develop a relationship with people?
In 2005, scientists demonstrated that honeybees could recognize human faces by displaying photographs of peoples’ faces and training individual bees to visit target photos. During this exercise, they rewarded bees with a sucrose solution when they landed on the target face.
In the following stage, they changed the exercise, took away the reward (sucrose solution), and added similar faces as distractors – and they had remarkable results! Bees landed on the target accurately, demonstrating the ability to learn faces and tell them apart.
They repeated the test two days later with two bees, and the results showed these bees also formed long-term memory of the faces.
If bees can identify and remember faces, do they connect with certain humans, like their beekeepers?
So, Can Bees And Humans be Friends?
While the previous experiments show, that honey bees can distinguish faces, it doesn’t say much about how they feel.
I couldn’t find studies around bees developing emotional bonds with humans; however, research suggests honeybees can have a state of negative affect or feelings after being agitated.
I also found other reports – not yet supported scientifically – indicating that honeybees learn to identify when a threat comes from the same intruder, such as a beekeeper, from a different person with the help of the color, odor, and shape of beekeepers’.
While these amazing discoveries break down assumptions we’ve had about these complex creatures, it’s difficult to make any concrete conclusions about how bees feel about humans. As American ethologist James Gould says, for now, it just means our face is just another shape or pattern for bees.
Honeybees can be considered friendly creatures which will only respond defensively when there are threats to themselves and their hive.
Depending on the colony you encounter and the individual characteristic of the bees, their response will be different. For example, a colony of Africanized honeybees will respond differently than European honeybees.
If you want to avoid being attacked or stung, ensure you are aware of your surroundings as there may be a hive around. Bees will warn you by bumping into you, in which case the best thing to do is to back off and avoid sudden and harsh movements and kill them.
Interesting research into bee behavior suggests they can recognize human faces and feel ‘bad’ after a stressful event. While it doesn’t confirm if bees see us as friends, it does show these creatures are more complex than we may think.