Buzz-kill: Afraid Bees Are Out to Sting You?

It’s criminal—every day, in yards, picnic areas, and outdoor cafes across the country, scary bees stalk unsuspecting humans, slap-happy with sting power and thirsty for blood. Or…at least that’s how lots of people think of bees. Who among us has not frozen in cartoonish fear at the sound of a nearby buzz? Bug scientists, however, say we’re wrong to give bees such a bum rap.

A little sniffing around shows the odds of getting stung by bees are pretty slim. Experts report that virtually all bees one is likely to encounter flying from flower to flower are non-aggressive, and only 50 percent (i.e., only the females) have the capacity to sting in the first place. In fact, most stings don’t come from bees at all—they’re much more likely to come from yellowjackets, or, to a lesser degree, hornets or paper wasps.

Moreover, bees are a critical part of our food chain: They pollinate one in three foods we eat, after all. (Kind of a big deal, right?)

The Case on Bees

So, what exactly makes a bee a bee, and not one of those more aggressive stingers? First off, there’s no one single kind of bee. You can probably think of only two kinds offhand, in fact: honeybees and bumblebees are some of the best-known types. (That’s partly why they get their own single word spelling in the dictionary, while scientists stick with the two-word species names.) But even those well-known types only make up a fraction of the massively diverse bee world. There are around 20,000 species of these buzz-worthy insects on Earth. To put that into perspective, that’s more than the mammal, amphibian, and reptile species combined.

With so many variables to consider, we knew we needed help from some big-time experts in bee research: University of Illinois professor and recent Fulbright scholar Sydney Cameron, PhD, and the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Rebecca Tonietto, a PhD candidate at Northwestern. We also consulted several other venerable sources for info, listed right.

These experts devote their life’s work to learning about bees—and even they can only get a full grasp on a few species. In lieu of suggesting we all quit our jobs and go to bee school (though frankly it sounds pretty cool), we’ll stick with the basics for now. Here are some standard characteristics of bees:

Vibrant bumblebees in action! (Top: Bombus affinis, Johanna James-Heinz; bottom: Bombus franklini, Peter Schroeder)

Kickin’ it old school: Bees date back to the Cretaceous period, when they evolved alongside flowering plants (angiosperms). Check out this pic of the oldest bee on record, 100 million years and going strong.
Fuzz factor: Most bees are fuzzy, which means they can carry an electrostatic charge that helps pollen stick to them. Most also have pollen baskets of some sort, typically on their hindlegs—aka, “the bees’ knees.”
Can you smell me now? Bees use their multi-segmented antennae to detect smells.
Eye spy: Bees have five eyes. The two main ones in front look shimmery and pointed—similar to alien eyes you see in movies. The other three are domelike, smaller, and are perched on the top of the head to help them detect predators.
Spit happens: Female bees lay their eggs in nests and brood cells, which they line with saliva to waterproof and protect from pathogens. They deposit pollen here, too, so their young have something to eat while they develop.
House rules: Some bees (most notably honeybees and bumblebees) are the social, colony-inhabiting bees we’ve come to know. But the majority of the 4,000 bees native to the U.S. are actually solitary, living in individual holes in the ground or timber. This is also true of bees worldwide.
Flower power: Bees are not interested in you or your sandwich. They’re only in it for the flowers. We’ll elaborate below.

A Sting Operation…Or Not

Yes, female bees have the ability to sting you. (Reality check: Males don’t even have stingers!) But what matters is when and how often they use this power on people.

Though social bees occasionally sting people, it’s only because they’re defending what they sense as a threat to their colony or hive. When they’re just minding their own, ahem, beeswax on a flower, they will always be too busy with nectar or pollen to bother with a boring ol’ human.

Meanwhile, as most native bees are solitary creatures without a hive to defend, they’re only likely to sting you if they actually think you’re a flower—i.e., you’re wearing a bright yellow shirt and perfume. Chances are, though, if there are real flowers around, they’ll be perfectly content with them.

Those chances are so good, in fact, that Tonietto, who has been working in and amongst bees for six years now, has only been stung once. (That said, there are a few things she does to decrease those odds even further. Check EcoMyths’ own video series, The Bee Chronicles, for her insider tips.)

The bottom line is, bees aren’t the notorious stingers that people make them out to be. But more than simply being a non-threat to most humans, they’re actually incredibly critical to our daily life.

Bee Diversity Is the Spice (and a Bunch of Other Edible Stuff) of Life

Anyone who has seen Bee Movie knows the world would be a lot less colorful without bees. (Note, though, that the Jerry Seinfeld-helmed flick featured male honeybees with stingers, making it “totally misleading” according to Cameron.) Still, the movie’s core concept that we need bees holds true for all our bee species.

Insects, along with the help of birds and some small mammals, are responsible for pollinating about 90 percent of the flowering plants on Earth. A staggering one in three bites of all our food is made possible by this elite team of pollinators.

This carpenter bee is way more interested in milkweed than in photographer Rebecca Tonietto

Bees help keep our agricultural fields rich with beans, tomatoes, peppers, peaches, apples, pumpkins, almonds, and berries, and our wilderness areas bursting with dazzling wildflowers. Some plants, like tomatoes, actually require wild bees, such as bumblebees, to pollinate them. Bee diversity matters, too. Some species prefer to go straight to the squash plant, while others do best with watermelons or tomatoes.

It’s useful to consider that bees and flowers evolved on this planet together, each forming half of one the world’s best partnerships. Like Monday nights and football, it’s possible that one could exist without the other, but it just wouldn’t be anywhere near as good. Bee pollination makes the world more beautiful, more colorful, and, well, more edible.

“Even if you think, ‘oh, I don’t care about beauty, but I do care about eating,’ bees are invaluable animals,” declares Cameron. “Most plants require active pollination by an insect, and 99 percent of those insects are going to be bees, 20,000 species of which have evolved to do exactly that. People can’t grasp a world without plants. But we need to grasp the fact that if bees go, plants go.”

EcoMyth Outcome: Myth Busted

All bees do not sting—in fact, only females have stingers and even among those, not all have a hive or colony to defend. More importantly, bees will always be far more interested in pollinating flowers than bothering to sting you.

One Green Thing You Can Do

Plant bee-friendly flowers that are rich with pollen and nectar, like columbine and aster, instead of ornamental flowers like impatiens and begonias. The BeeSpotter has more info here.

More ways to help:

Take a cue from Tonietto, pictured above, and identify some bees already!

The Multiplier Effect

Wild pollinators in the U.S. alone contribute to our agricultural industry to the tune of four to six billion dollars per year, according to the Great Sunflower Project.