How Do Honey Bees Sting? Anatomy Of A Stinger

Closeup of a honey bee stinging a human's arm

The honey bee has a complex stinger designed to help defend the hive against threats. It looks much like a hypodermic needle, pointed and hollow under a microscope.

A cross-section of the bee’s stinger shows a venom canal surrounded by a stylet and two lancets (see image below). This combination creates a stiff structure that holds its shape when thrust through the skin.

Illustration of the anatomy of a bee stinger with parts labeled
The anatomy of a a bee stinger.

A venom sac feeds painful, venomous liquid into a bulb connected to the venom canal. As the stinger penetrates:

  • Barbed lancets keep the stinger from dislodging.
  • Muscles pump the lancets up and down.
  • Venom is squeezed through the central canal and out the stinger.
  • Scent released from the venom warns the hive of a threat.

Interesting reading: What bees and wasps have the longest stingers?

Why are honey bee stings so effective?

Once a bee stings its victim, the stinger’s barbs stop it from being removed easily. The sting also has a mass of controlling nerve cells (ganglion) that force lancets deeper into the flesh while pumping venom. This usually lasts 30-60 seconds, even if the bee dies or dislodges.

Image of a bee sting lodged into flesh and the bee flying away
The stinger keeps pumping poison after the bee moves away.

Where is the stinger located?

Bees only protract their stinger when they need to use it. During day-to-day activities, the appendage is withdrawn into a sting chamber at the end of the insect’s abdomen.

The honey bee stinger is a modified ovipositor, the apparatus female bees use to lay eggs.

What’s in the venom of a honey bee sting?

Honey bee venom is a powerful substance, but relatively small amounts are released.

Bee venom is a complex mixture of compounds, each contributing to pain, inflammation, and even allergic reactions in some people. Here are some of the major components found in bee venom:

Melittin: This is the principal active component of bee venom. Containing 26 amino polypeptides, it is the main bee venom compound responsible for pain and lethality. Source.

Phospholipase A2 (PLA2): This enzyme is one of the major allergens responsible for allergic reactions to bee stings.

Hyaluronidase: Often termed the “spreading factor,” it breaks down hyaluronic acid in the extracellular matrix. This action allows other venom components to spread more quickly through the tissue.

Apamin: A peptide neurotoxin that blocks specific types of calcium-activated potassium channels in nerves, contributing to the venom’s effects.

Mast cell degranulating peptide (MCD): This compound induces histamine release from mast cells, contributing to inflammation, itching, and allergic reactions.

Tertiapin: A component that inhibits specific potassium channels, causing pain and signs of inflammation.

Dopamine and noradrenaline: These neurotransmitters can modulate pain perception and affect blood vessels and heart rate.

Protease inhibitors: These compounds inhibit the breakdown of venom components by the adversary’s enzymes, prolonging the venom’s effect.

While some wasps inflict a weaker poison, they often release a lot more. It is the quantity that makes it more lethal to insects (and painful for humans).

A drawing of a honey bee penetrating skin with a stinger
Bee venom contains a diverse mix of compounds.

Why do honeybees die when they sting?

Most honey bees die after they use their stinger. Barbs get lodged securely in the flesh, causing abdominal rupture or disembowelment when the bee pulls away.

A gruesome mix of venom sac, muscles, glands, and digested materials remain. If the bee doesn’t die instantly, it will typically only last a few minutes as it bleeds out a clear type of “fake blood.”

Not all bees die after stinging their rival. Queen bees can sting repeatedly as they have a smooth stinger. This makes sense as they often must fight other queens to the death to control the colony. If her stinger were barbed, no queens would remain at the end of a fight.

Did you know? Honey bees are the only species with a barbed stinger. Other bees and wasps have a smooth one, so they don’t usually die after using their weapon.

Honey bee sting vs. wasp sting

Bee and wasp stings both cause pain and can potentially kill their victims. However, honey bees have short, barbed stingers with highly toxic venom. Wasps have longer, smooth stings that can be used multiple times.

While wasp venom is often less toxic than a honey bee’s, it releases more, resulting in severe pain for humans.   

What is the difference between a sting and a bite?

Insect bites and stings are mechanisms insects use to defend themselves or hunt prey. Insects bite using mouthparts to pierce the skin and often feed on the host’s blood. These bites can cause itching, redness, and swelling.

Stinging insects inject venom into their target through a specialized organ. Victims experience immediate pain and a burning sensation, sometimes leading to more severe allergic reactions in sensitive individuals.

Some insects use a combination of biting and stinging. Yellow jacket wasps may use their jaws to get a good grip before stinging over and over.

A black and white diagram of the parts of a bee stinger and connected organs
A drawing of the bee’s stinger apparatus.

Commonly asked questions

How long does a bee sting last?

The pain from a honey bee sting usually lasts 1-2 hours, while swelling and redness may last up to 3 days.

Do all bee species sting?

While most female bee species can sting, roughly 550 bee species in the Meliponini family are stingless.

Why do honey bees sting?

Honey bees usually sting to defend themselves or their colony. While most bee breeds keep to themselves, Africanized bees may aggressively attack victims if approached.

5 facts about bee stings

  1. Receiving a honey bee sting may be painful, but it is much less intense and short-lived than insects like tarantula hawks, bullet ants, and warrior wasps. Source.
  2. Scientists believe adults without allergies to bee venom can withstand ten stings per pound of body weight.
  3. Elephants fear bee stings, so some African villages use beehives to keep wild elephants away.
  4. The nostril is believed to be the most painful location for humans to receive a bee sting.
  5. The toxins in bee venom are used for wound healing, cosmetics, and to treat skin allergies. Source.

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