Many people understandably have an aversion to bees and with good reason. They sting, and while they are not as aggressive as wasps, the feeling of being stung is not a pleasant one. In fact, it can be downright painful. Those that have allergies to bee stings can sometimes end up with serious health implications, including fatal reactions. While bee stings are painful, and not an ideal way to commune with nature, there is a great deal of misinformation on bees.
One of the most commonly asked questions is: are bees poisonous? This is an understandable question, given the likelihood of a sting when anything gets too close to the hive. Bees are more complex than they seem on the surface, so learning about their biological construct, reasons they may sting, and what happens in bee/human encounters, can provide a better understanding of their "poisonous" reputation.
A Bit About Bees
Bees have three main parts of their anatomy: the head, the abdomen, and the thorax. Bees also have an outer portion meant for protection called the exoskeleton. They have three legs to walk and two different pairs of wings to fly. Bees have a proboscis to slurp fluids (like nectar, for instance) and a set of antennae to detect movement and scents.
The stinger is at the rear of the abdomen and is a separate organ. It injects venom into prey and is what people think about when they wonder are bees poisonous.
To understand the question of "are bees poisonous," it helps to have foundational knowledge of the structure of the bee colony. Bees live in colonies comprising up to 60,000 worker bees (females), a queen bee and a few hundred drone bees (males). There is just one queen within the colony, and her only role is to lay eggs. The bees create a hive for her to do this important work and to allow for the storage of honey and pollen.
Bees use honey for carbohydrate consumption and pollen to get their protein. Bees are cyclical creatures. In the fall, the population diminishes as the amount of pollen and nectar incoming dwindles with cooler weather. Older bees within a colony die while younger bees hunker down through the winter months to await spring.
In fact, during the winter months, if there is not enough nectar to go around, the drones are expelled from the colony and starve to death. The queen stops producing eggs during this time, and the bees swarm closer to generate heat. This is why bees are not prominent during colder months. When the spring returns, the bee colony expands significantly. The number of drones being sent out increases and the bees production more honey than they need.
The queen lays more eggs to increase the number of drones. The result of this is an increase in the numbers of bees leaving the hive to collect nectar and pollen. This is why you may see more bees during the spring and summer months; this also correlates with an increase in bee stings when the weather is warmer.
Why Do They Sting?
When making the determination if bees are poisonous, this is because of the sting. Bee stings are fairly common, particularly for those that spend a great deal of time outdoors. Stinging insects all have the same reputation; however, insects sting for different reasons. For instance, wasps are aggressive predators that will pursue prey and sting because it is in their nature to do so.
Bees sting for a different reason. During the warm summer months, bees are on the prowl for nectar or pollen. More often than not, these drone bees are not out to sting anyone. Rather, they want to do their jobs and head back to the hive. The male bees don't have stingers, and these males comprise the drone bee population. However, bees hovering around the hive are different.
Bee use instinct to protect their most important asset (not honey): the queen. Animals or people that get too close to a hive are threats from the view of the bees in and around it. They will attack anything they think is trying to threaten the entire hive. What may start out as one bee sting can quickly turn into thousands as the bees sound the alarm throughout the hive. It is important to reinforce that bees are not aggressive naturally; they only sting when they deem it necessary.
Females are the ones that sting, but also doing so is a fatal blow to the bee. Bees leave behind their stingers when they sting. This means that to detach, the bee must tear away--ripping its abdomen, nerves, and muscles. Only in rare instances can a bee survive the stinging process. The extent of this injury is part of what ultimately kills the bee. However, the stinger that detached in the skin will continue to filter venom through the skin for up to 10 minutes or until it is removed, whichever happens first. The stinger stays in the skin to deliver the maximum amount of venom, which is part of the reason that bees die after stinging.
When asking are bees poisonous, it is important to point out that the structure of the question is erroneous. Bees don't have poison in their little flying bodies; they carry venom. While many people use the terms interchangeably, the fact is that there is a difference. Poison is a substance ingested through breathing, touch or consumption.
It causes illness, physical damage or even death, depending on the poison and the biological reaction of the sufferer. Alternatively, venom injects into the skin through stinging or biting. Think of a snake who administers venom by breaking the skin with sharp fangs; the more slithering of the snake on the skin is not enough to cause damage.
This is the reason that snakes are "venomous" rather than "poisonous." For venom to be effective, it must enter the bloodstream, where it causes damage. Bees are the same way. A bee landing on your arm is not enough to cause damage; however, a bee sting injects the venom of the bee into the skin, and this contributes to the pain you feel.
If you wonder are bees poisonous, then you might learn more about the actual venom. The venom of a bee has a unique chemical composition, depending on the specific bee in question. This is why some stings hurt more. This is also why some people may be allergic to the stings of some bees, but not to others. On average, a human can take roughly 10 stings from a bee for each pound of their body weight. So, a 150-pound person could withstand 1,500 stings. However, for a child, the tolerance is much less. For example, a few hundred stings on a child could be fatal, even if they are not allergic to the sting.
Bee venom has benefit. It is a therapy to treat an array of ailments in Europe and Asia. People with multiple sclerosis and rheumatic diseases have enjoyed the use of bee venom injected at therapeutic doses. Research is also ongoing regarding the benefit of bee venom for arthritis sufferers. This research began after older beekeepers rarely suffered from arthritis later in life, possibly due to the many stings they received over the years.
What To Do If You're Stung?
Treating a bee sting is fairly simple. Take an over-the-counter pain reliever to address any residual pain. Wash the area with unscented soap and warm water. Dry it thoroughly and then apply a thin layer of hydrocortisone cream to deal with any swelling, itchiness or redness.
If you have not had a tetanus shot in the last decade, make an appointment for a booster. Those with an allergy to bee venom should seek medical attention immediately after a sting. Treatment with epinephrine, oxygen or an antihistamine remains the treatment of choice for those with bee venom allergies.
Adverse bee-human encounters are rare. Most bees are content are not aggressive as they tend to their hives. It is only when they are hungry and desperate for pollen or nectar, and something stands in their way, or there is a threat to the hive that they take a more aggressive stance. Obviously, those in the beekeeping profession are more susceptible to being stung because they deal with large quantities of bees daily.
The short to the question: "Are bees poisonous?" is technically no. However, they are venomous, and they can use their venom to harm other living things. For most people, the pain of a bee sting is tolerable and even being stung multiple time doesn't have a lasting impact.
Those that have an allergy to the chemical components of bee venom can have significant physical reactions that can be fatal if help is not readily available. Despite the ability of bees to sting, they play an important role in the natural infrastructure of this planet, and the ecological balance would be vastly different without them.