Bee Stinger

Do all Bees have Stingers?

In most bee species like honey bees only the female bees, i.e. workers and queens have a bee stinger.  Drones or male bees do not possess stingers. The bee stinger is mainly used to defend the hive and themselves. However, there are species of stingless bees like the Melipona bees, which, as the name suggests, have no bee stinger. These bees have developed other defense mechanisms as a defense.

Bee Stinger Anatomy: Understanding Its Structure and Function

In order to defend themselves and their colony, honeybees possess a highly effective defense mechanism known as the stinger. The small but powerful device serves two crucial purposes – repelling enemies and facilitating the laying of eggs for reproduction.

A recent study aimed to delve deeper into the specific traits and capabilities of stinger penetration. Through extensive analysis, researchers were able to uncover a wealth of information about the stinger’s structure and function, shedding new light on the intricate workings of these remarkable insects.

Photo by Researchgate

Where is the stinger located?

The sting chamber is located inside the final abdominal segment. It contains the sting apparatus that comprises various components. These include the protractor- and retractor muscles, the venom sac, the stinger, and the bulb, which functions as the venom reservoir.

Size and Shape

Bee stingers are small, needle-like structures that vary in size and shape depending on the species of bee. They are typically around 0.2-0.3 mm in length and are pointed at the end, with a slightly curved shape.

Bee Stinger Evolution and Human Importance

The evolution of the bee stinger (aculeus) is a fascinating topic for scientists. Some researchers believe that stingers evolved as a way of defense against predators. Others believe they may have originally evolved as a way for bees to lay eggs in the bodies of other insects (a modified ovipositor). This is because the bee stinger is a component of the ovipositor, which acts as an apparatus to lay eggs.

Insect stingers have been the subject of various research to understand their penetration mechanism. The importance of comprehending stinger penetration serves to develop bio-inspired instruments, such as painless insertion techniques for medical procedures and drilling technologies for subsurface exploration.

How a Bee Stinger Works – Morphology

The abdomen of honeybees, specifically the Apis mellifera species, has ten segments, of which seven are evident. The last abdominal segment houses the sting chamber. This contains the entire sting apparatus, including the nerve ganglions, venom sac, various muscles, the bulb, and the end of the insect’s digestive tract. Despite of its small size, the stinger can be a potent defense tool for honeybee workers when faced with predators.

When honey bees feel threatened, they release a chemical called an alarm pheromone. The nerve ganglions receive a signal that triggers the protractor muscle to contract in the abdomen. This action causes the bee to bend downward to vertically penetrate the stinger and pierce its enemy. The protractor and retractor muscles control two pairs of movements up and down.  This results in a flexible extension of the stinger shaft, allowing the efficient delivery of venom. Meanwhile, the bulb serves as the conduit for the venom’s delivery into the stinger. It is worth noting that the venom sac and bulb work together in supplying the venom into the stinger.

The bee’s leg movements, the abdomen muscles, and the backward-pointing barbs combine to generate a thrust that drives the stinger swiftly and accurately. This allows the bee venom (apitoxin) to enter and penetrate tough skin through a channel in the stinger.

Overall, the sting apparatus is a complex and efficient system designed to subdue threats or provide protection for an insect in various environments.

Smooth or Serrated (Barbed) Stingers

The stinger of a black bee (Apis mellifera mellifera) torn from the bee’s body. By SuperManu – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Some species of bees like bumble bees have smooth stingers, while others have serrated stingers. Smooth stingers are easier to remove from the skin, but they also tend to be less effective at injecting venom. Serrated stingers are more difficult to remove, but they can inject more venom into the victim.

In honey bee workers, the bee stinger consists of two lancets. Each is fitted with clusters of curved barbs that lie in grooves on the tips of the outer end of the stinger. These barbs provide a one-way traction, enabling the stinger to penetrate deeper into the flesh.

The stinger enters in a spiral motion and clockwise rotation of the stinger shaft during penetration. Due to the raked shape of the barbs, the bee’s sting becomes increasingly difficult to remove, allowing the insect to continue injecting venom through the detached stinger for an extended period. This mechanism is particularly effective in delivering a substantial amount of venom, which reinforces the defensive mechanism of the bee.

In contrast, the stinger of the honeybee queen and other bee species, like bumble bees for example, is smooth. Although the mechanism is the same, without the barbs, they can sting multiple times. Honey bee queens usually sting only when engaged in a battle for dominance against another queen. Contrary to popular belief, the queen bee is not typically aggressive towards other bees or humans.

What happens to a bee after the sting?

The typical fate of honeybee workers that attempt to sting a human is death. The bee stinger is designed in a way that, when it penetrates human skin, it cannot be extracted without causing self-amputation. In a desperate attempt to remove the stinger, the honeybee ruptures its lower abdomen. This results in a gaping hole at the end of its body with a string of digestive material, muscles, glands, and the venom sac extracted, leaving the bee to die. Research showed that honey bees die after 5 – 24 hours after they sting.

However, barbed stingers in bees enable them to sting other insects without harming themselves. In addition, some beekeepers reported that if the sting is shallow and the bee is left alone, it can sometimes wiggle its stinger out unharmed.

The Importance of Bee Stingers

Bee stingers may seem like a nuisance, but they actually play an important role in the survival of the bee colony. When a bee stings a predator, it releases a pheromone that signals to other bees to come to its defense. This is known as the “alarm pheromone” and it helps protect the colony from further harm.

What is bee venom made of?

Apitoxin, or bee venom is a bitter and colorless liquid. It contains cytotoxic and hemotoxic compounds along with proteins that can cause local inflammation. The venom of honey bees primarily consists of melittin, which makes up about 52% of venom peptides, while Adolapin contributes only 2-5% of the peptides. Peptides are strings of amino acids, also known as the “building blocks” of proteins.

These components make honey bee venom an effective tool for defense against predators and pests. However, they also have potential medical applications (Apitherapy) in the treatment of diseases such as arthritis and cancer. Additionally, bee venom has been shown to possess antibacterial and antiviral properties, making it a promising candidate for the development of novel therapeutic agents.

The effects of Bee Venom on Humans and Animals

Bees are an important part of our ecosystem, but their stingers can be a nuisance or even a danger to humans. Bee venom can cause a range of effects on humans and animals, depending on the individual’s sensitivity and the amount of venom injected.

For most people, a bee sting will cause pain, swelling, and redness at the site of the sting. In some cases, individuals may experience an allergic reaction. These can cause symptoms such as hives, difficulty breathing, and swelling of the face and throat. In rare cases, a severe allergic reaction known as anaphylaxis can occur. This can be life-threatening if not treated promptly. Animals, such as dogs and horses, can also be affected by bee stings, with symptoms ranging from mild swelling to more severe reactions such as difficulty breathing and collapse.

Why Bee Stings Hurt

Bee stings hurt because of the venom that is injected into the skin. The venom contains a mixture of chemicals that can cause pain, swelling, and inflammation. In addition, the barbs on the stinger can cause further irritation and damage to the skin. The severity of the reaction to a bee sting can vary depending on factors such as the person’s sensitivity to the venom and the number of stings received. In some cases, bee stings can even be life-threatening, particularly for those with severe allergies.

How to Treat a Bee Sting

If stung by a bee, it is important to remove the stinger as quickly as possible. This is to minimize the amount of venom that is injected into the skin. You can use a credit card or other flat object to scrape the stinger out of your skin, being careful not to squeeze the venom sac and release more venom.

After removing the stinger, wash the area with soap and water and apply a cold compress to reduce swelling. Over-the-counter pain relievers and antihistamines can also help alleviate symptoms.

What are the symptoms of a bee sting?

Symptoms of a bee sting can vary depending on the individual’s sensitivity to the venom. Common symptoms include pain, swelling, redness, and itching at the site of the sting. In severe cases, an allergic reaction can occur, which can cause difficulty breathing, hives, and even anaphylactic shock.

How to prevent bee stings?

To prevent bee stings, it is important to avoid disturbing bees or their nests. Wear protective clothing when working outdoors and be cautious when approaching beehives or areas where bees are present. Avoid wearing bright colors or floral patterns, as they can attract bees. If you do encounter a bee, remain calm and still, and slowly move away from the area.

What to do if you are allergic to bee stings?

If you have a known allergy to bee stings, it is important to carry an epinephrine auto-injector (such as an EpiPen) with you at all times. If you are stung and experience symptoms of an allergic reaction, use the auto-injector immediately and seek medical attention right away.




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