Honey bees will be familiar to most beekeepers as they are the most commonly kept type of bee, but there are hundreds of different species of bees, some of which not only do not produce honey, but do not sting. The question of which bees sting and which do not has practical importance to the beekeeper, but it's also a fun way to explore how bee species differ.
Although honey bees are not the only bee that can be reared, they are by a long way the most abundant-at least in the United States. The most common type of honey bee for commercial purposes belongs to the species Apis mellifera. Their colonies commonly reach numbers as high as 50,000, and as the colony survives over winter, they must produce large stores of honey that can the beekeeper can obtain and sell.
A honey bee can sting as can their close relative the bumblebee. They sting for several reasons, but it is often a matter of being provoked. Bumblebees are often regarded as milder and less prone to sting than honey bees, but they can still pack a punch. There are species of bee that do not sting at all, the so-called “Stingless Bees.” Even among species capable of stinging, like the honey bee and bumble bee, the males commonly cannot do so.
Types of Bees
Believe it or not, there are about 25,000 known bee species, with the possibility of more yet to be discovered. There are several thousand species of bee in the United States alone, all conveniently divided into genera and species so that scientists and beekeepers can keep track. Complicating things further is the reality that species can be introduced from one place of origin to the other. For example, the honey bee has been introduced all around the world to produce honey. The many types of bees can make it difficult to keep track of which bees sting.
Both honey bees and bumble bees belong to the family Apidae, though there are many bees that fall outside of this group and are more distantly related to these two familiar species. All bee types have specific taxonomic classifications and fall under the superfamily Apoidea, which also includes some wasps. It may come as a surprise, but there are many types of bees that are very different from the honey bees and bumble bees that have become fixtures in our imagination.
Although we associate bees with complex social structures, often centered around a queen, some bees are solitary, while other are “mining bees” that do not produce honey. Bees can fall outside the familiar color pattern of yellow and black, even having green or black markings, which can help you keep track of which bees sting and which do not. The families falling under the superfamily Apoidea are listed below.
- Apidae – includes honey bees and bumble bees
- Megachilidae – includes solitary bees
- Andrenidae – very numerous family that include mining bees
- Colletidae – another large group that includes plasterer and yellow-faced bees
- Halictidae – a family of often smaller bees that come in many colors
- Melittidae – a small family of African bees
- Meganomiidae – an even smaller family of African bees
- Dasypodaidae – a family of about one hundred species
- Stenotritidae – a family of Australian species. G'day, mate!
We have already introduced the familiar European honey bee, or Apis mellifera. This bee should be at the top of the list of which bees sting. There are ten species of honey bee and one hybrid, known as the Africanized honey bee. Besides having their hives harvested for honey, the honey bee plays an important role in pollination, and in some parts of the world honey bees have helped to preserve or spread plant species through their pollination efforts.
Although honey bees have been widely introduced for honey production, there has been a recent phenomenon of honey bee deaths around the world. In fact, we have seen declines in numbers within many bee species. Though the theory of competition has been proposed, that honey bees are out-competing native, or “wild,” bee species; the data suggests that both honey bee numbers, as well as numbers of wild bees, are dropping for a number of reasons, including the use of powerful pesticides.
Bumblebees are another familiar type of bee though they are uncommonly reared by beekeepers as they do not technically produce honey, but rather store small quantities of nectar. We can place them second on the list of which bees sting. Bumblebee colonies do not remain intact through the winter, so there is no need for large honey stores. Only the queen survives through the winter, and she nourishes herself with her body's fat stores rather than with honey.
There are over 250 species of bumblebee within the genus Bombus, including Bombus lucorum, the white-tailed honey bee. Although bumblebees are social just like honey bees, their colony numbers are much smaller, with just a few hundred members total. Bumblebees are known for being standout pollinators working alone and diligently extracting pollen and nectar until the job is complete, in contrast to honey bees. As already noted, both bumble bees and honey bees sting.
There are many types of solitary bees, including leafcutter and mason bees belonging to the family Megachilidae, and digger and carpenter bees belonging to the family Apidae. Pulling up pictures of these on the web reveals that some of them resemble honey bees and bumble bees and may be mistaken for them, while others are unique in appearance. The common names of the bees give a general indication of their behaviors, and you may be surprised to learn that just might have digger bees in your garden. Many of these fall on the list of which bees sting.
These bees also fall into the family Apidae, and leaving aside the fact that they do not sting, some of them are very interesting. Though like other members of Apidae, stingless bees are frequently excellent pollinators, some do not pollinate or obtain nectar in the typical way. Members of the genus Trigona feed off of rotting fruit, dead flowers, and even dead meat (such as lizards). Some, like members of the genus Ptilotrigona, even cultivate yeast, which helps them to store pollen in the nest.
Why Do Bees Sting?
This is almost as important a question as “Why do fools fall in love?” though perhaps a little easier to answer. A beekeeper that understands bees may be fortunate enough never to be stung. Bees will sting when provoked, or if they are protecting their hive or the queen. Some types of bees, besides stinging, will fly directly at a person as an attempt to scare them off. Bees that are more solitary tend to be easier to handle and less prone to sting. Though they are still on the list of which bees sting, you may find them less of a problem.
A sting from a bee is often acquired accidentally. If you are not wearing shoes in your garden, you may accidentally step on a bee. As you might imagine, a bee sting is more likely to occur in settings where there are large numbers of flowering plants, as bees will be in that area as pollinators. Children are often stung compared to adults, as children may be more likely to provoke a bee out of ignorance or may behave more clumsily in places where there may be a lot of bees present, like a garden.
Listed below are common tactics to protect yourself from bee stings.
- If you need not interfere with a nest, leave it alone
- Keep skin and clothes clean and dry if picnicking or eating in a garden
- Keep your feet covered when walking on grass
- Keep your food in containers when outdoors
- Remain calm (do not provoke bee by going berserk!)
- Use environmentally friendly insect repellent
- Do not use perfumes or colognes if planning a day out
Which Bees Sting?
More likely than not the bees that you will encounter outdoors will be bees capable of stinging you, at least if you live in the United States. Many readers will have no exposure to stingless bees, and probably would not recognize one if they saw one. Many of the 25,000 species of bees sting, and this includes both honey bees and bumble bees, which are both common in many areas of the United States.
We have spoken about the stingless bees, of which there are quite a few species, including members of the genera Trigona and Ptilotrigona. These bees will not sting you, and you should think about bumble bees and honey bees if concerned about which bees sting. It is important to remember, however, that male drones do not sting. Drones are slightly larger than the female workers though much smaller than the queen. The primary function of the drones is to mate with the queen, and they are unable to sting,
With more than 25,000 species of bees, it can be a daunting task to keep track of which bees sting and which cannot. Though there are many bees classified as stingless bees, the most frequently encountered bees in the United States, like honey bees and bumble bees, are capable of stinging, though the males are unable to do so. Bees will sting if provoked, though a bee sting can often be avoided.
There are a number of steps that can be taken to prevent a bee sting, like avoiding things that can attract a bee, like open containers of food or perfume. Also, protecting your skin when in an area where there are likely to be bees is important. Finally, it is important to remember that bees are social creatures with their own set tasks. It can be said that they would rather not sting you, so as long as you leave them alone, they are likely to leave you alone.