Some people think that bees can smell fear because they chase or sting people who are afraid. But can they really?
There is no scientific proof that indicates bees can smell fear in humans and interpret it as such. It is more likely that specific movements we do when we are frightened are what makes bees become defensive.
How Do Bees Smell?
Honeybees have around 170 odorant receptors, which are responsible for their remarkable sense of smell. This sense of smell allows them to locate and identify flowers as well as communicate with each other.
Bee communication is based on pheromones, chemical signals which regulate many aspects of their highly organized colony.
Besides being helpful when foraging, pheromones have an essential role in the defense mechanism of bees. Pheromones act as a signal they send each other when they perceive a threat to themselves and their hive.
For example, every time a bee stings, it releases an alarm pheromone that alerts the other bees nearby and calls them to join forces against a potential predator.
Due to their outstanding sense of smell, it isn’t crazy to think they can also perceive the smell of other beings like us, including the smells we release when we feel fear.
Given they are so good at communicating with pheromones, could they notice ours too?
Pheromones are chemical signals animals secrete. These signals are perceived by members of the same species and trigger a response in them.
Right away, this answers our question. Pheromones are meant to cause a reaction in members of the same species. Therefore, there is no evidence of human pheromones altering the behavior of bees.
Also, there is a bigger problem concerning human pheromones – we are not even sure they exist.
Researchers have tried to identify these substances for years without finding any conclusive evidence. This makes the assumption bees can smell some sort of pheromones we release when we’re afraid unlikely.
Maybe there is something else going on during our fear response that may set off an alarm in bees?
What Happens When We Are Afraid?
Bee stings are painful, and for some people, this can be a life-threatening event. It’s natural to feel fear whenever we’re close to bees.
Whenever we face a scary or stressful situation, our body goes through a series of changes to increase our chances of survival – the ‘fight or flight’ response.
To prepare our body to either fight or run away, our brain sends a series of signals to the body parts that will be needed the most, until we feel safe again.
Our adrenal gland secretes hormones that trigger a generalized response prioritizing certain bodily functions over others.
For example, the hormone adrenaline mobilizes nutrients and oxygen to our lungs and muscles by expanding our blood vessels and increasing our breathing and heart rate.
Adrenalin also activates special glands that produce sweat. This sweat is different from the one we notice when we exercise and feel hot.
This psychological or stress sweat happens due to emotional stimuli like fear and stress. It releases chemical signals, potentially communicating the way we feel.
Stress Sweat – A Smelly Giveaway?
Stress sweat contains more proteins, fats, and bacteria, making it thicker and smellier than sweat that regulates temperature.
This type of sweat is produced by the apocrine glands, primarily located in the armpits and genital area and activate during puberty.
Could this be the substance that reveals our fear?
A study found that people could identify someone else’s emotional state after smelling sweat samples from people when they were either happy or frightened.
However, there aren’t any significant studies done into bees’ ability to smell and identify our emotions.
So, Do Bees Smell And Understand Our Fear Signals?
Unfortunately, there seems to be no evidence that bees can detect and react to the chemical signals that we release when we feel fear.
The closest research done has been in dogs and horses due to their long history of domestication and the high probability they have learned to communicate with us.
During these experiments, dogs smelled odor samples from humans and reported signs of stress like higher heart rates, and seemed to seek comfort in their owners while avoiding contact with strangers.
Even though bees are great at communicating with their olfactory system, there is no evidence they can smell and interpret our chemical signals.
The reason why they seem to follow or sting people who are afraid of them might be related more to our behaviors than unconscious signals or smells we give off.
Why Do Bees Follow Us When We’re Afraid?
Bees are generally friendly. Usually, they are too busy working and gathering food for themselves and their colony. However, they do have effective defense mechanisms whenever they are interrupted by a predator or other threats.
Bees tend to warn you by bumping into you. Understandably, this can send you into panic mode, especially if you are allergic to bee stings.
Nevertheless, this is just a warning – they are telling you “Watch out. You are getting too close. Take a step back.” And that’s what you should do.
It might feel like a good idea to swat your arms to drive them away or kill them, but this will raise their alarms and associate you with an attacker.
The best way to stop being stung by bees is to stay as calm as possible. Take deep breathes to prevent some of the automatic responses of your body and allow yourself to think more clearly.
Be sure to make slow movements and stay away from their hive. If you feel the bees are ready to sting, don’t swat or kill them. Instead, get away from them quickly.
Summing Up… Can Bees Smell Fear?
There are no studies that indicate bees can smell fear in humans. Despite being well-known for communicating through odors and chemical signals like pheromones, there is no data that shows they can detect ours.
Research into the ability of humans and other animals (specifically dogs and horses) to recognize human emotions from body odor shows positive results. However, it seems there are no studies done with honeybees.
A possible explanation of why honeybees seem to sting people who are afraid of them could be that many react to bees by swatting and killing them. This sets off alarms in bees and activates their defensive mechanism.