Do Bees Sting For No Reason?

If you’ve been stung by a honey bee before, you’ve probably wondered why it happened. Did you get stung for a particular purpose, or was it an unprovoked attack? The truth is there was definitely a reason, even if you didn’t realize it at the time.

Bees don’t sting people for no reason. They only ever sting as a means of defense, when they believe you are a threat. This can happen if you’re either too close to the hive, or behaving in a manner the bee thinks is aggressive like swatting your hand.

A honey bee perched on someone's finger
Bees only sting if they think you are a threat

Why Do Bees Sting?

Honey bees don’t sting unprovoked. They sting because they believe the person or animal they are stinging is a threat to their colony.

There are two main reasons they might believe this:

  1. They may sting you if you come close to the hive. Bees are hard-wired to think large mammals approaching their hive are a threat. This is because they’re used to having bears, skunks, badgers and other animals stealing honey from them. If you get too close, bees may view you as a threat. The workers will spring into action and sting you in defense of their hive.
  2. If you are behaving aggressively, a bee might think you are dangerous. For example, if you see a bee and swat at it, or you make a lot of sudden movements, the bee might feel threatened. If they do, there’s a good chance they’ll sting you – because they don’t want you to attack their hive or kill other bees.

When a worker bee attacks you, their barbed stinger will become dislodged in your skin. This rips out the venom sack, killing the bee in the process. The fact bees die after attacking you is further proof they don’t sting for no reason. Why would they do something that results in their death, if they didn’t need to?

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A bee’s venom sack will remain attached to the stinger and continue slowly pumping venom into the victim. So if you do get stung, remove the stinger by brushing a fingernail against it. If you use tweezers and squeeze the sting to remove it, you may press more venom into the wound.

A stinger and venom sac lodged in the tip of someone's finger
Bee stingers have an attached venom sac

Do Africanized Honey Bees Sting Unprovoked?

Honey bees take on the genetic traits of their queen, so sometimes one colony will be more aggressive than others. Just because they have a higher tendency to sting, however, doesn’t mean they’ll do it without cause.    

One prime example of this is Africanized bees. Africanized bees, or killer bees as they’re sometimes called, are a more aggressive subspecies of bees. They evolved through crossbreeding European and East African honey bees. Since the 1950s, they’ve thrived in the Americas due to higher reproductive rates, shorter developmental cycles, and lower honey-storing needs than their European counterparts.

Because of their more aggressive nature, some people believe that Africanized bees sting people for no good reason. However, there is no evidence to support this. Like other honey bees, Africanized bees only ever sting when they feel threatened – they just feel threatened more often than European honey bees.

For example, they might consider you a threat to their hive if you come within a hundred feet of it, whereas another colony of bees might only feel you’re a threat if you’re within thirty feet. The more defensive the bees, the more likely they are to feel threatened and sting.

So Why Do Beekeepers Wear Protective Clothing?

Beekeepers wear protective clothing when they need to go close to the hive, or open it for an inspection. That’s because, as mentioned earlier, bees view large animals who approach their hive as a threat.

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Most beekeepers use smoke to dull the response of bees when they need to open the hive. If a bee does sting you, they’ll send an alarm pheromone into the air that alerts other bees. Smoke makes it more difficult for bees to detect this pheromone, and therefore makes it less likely a beekeeper will be stung multiple times when opening the hive.

However, some beekeepers who have hives full of calmer bees don’t feel the need to use smoke or protective clothing. This is typically only done by people who feel very confident around bees and know the behavior of the hives they keep.

A beekeeper inspecting a hive, dressed in a full bee suit and gloves
Protective clothing keeps beekeepers safe when inspecting a hive

What About People Who Swear A Bee Stung Them For No Reason?

Some people swear they’ve been stung by honey bees without provocation, regardless of how much evidence there is to the contrary. You’ve probably heard a story from someone you know who was just minding their own business when they got stung.

However, the truth is they almost certainly would have been stung because the bee felt threatened. Sure, it might not have been the person’s fault. Maybe they made a threatening movement without realizing it, or there was a beehive close by they didn’t know about. But, for whatever reason, the bee felt threatened and decided to attack.

It’s also possible the bee simply became confused and felt the person was a threat had to be dealt with. Bees aren’t perfect, after all, so it’s entirely understandable that they may sting people by mistake – much in the same way violence between two people can occur as a result of a misunderstanding. But it’s highly unlikely a bee has ever stung a person for any other reason other than them feeling threatened.

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Final Thoughts…

Bees only ever sting as a means of defending the hive. They do this when a predator is close to the hive, or when a predator displays behavior they believe to be aggressive (such as swatting at them).

If you don’t want to get stung, don’t go near a beehive or make any aggressive movements when you’re around bees. Follow those instructions, and it’s incredibly unlikely you’ll ever be stung by a honey bee.

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