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Bee Stings



Ouch! A bee sting is a painfully memorable experience, but do you know what actually happens (to the bee and to you) when a bee stings? Not all bees have stingers -- only those whose job it is to protect the hive. But there are other kinds of bees in a hive, whose jobs are as important as those of the stinging bees. Bees belong to an ancient species that has continually adapted to the many challenges posed by the environment. As a result, a highly organized society has evolved. The development of a community lifestyle to ensure survival is but one example of the species' evolutionary adaptations. The hive of the honeybee provides a delectable prize for many predators. Insects such as ants, wasps, and other bees are common intruders, as well as many mammals -- bears, skunks, badgers, raccoons, opossums, humans, anteaters, and even mice. Through generations of evolution, the attack behavior of bees developed as a defense to certain stimuli that signal the hive is in danger from an intruder. The bee's stinger has a flexible design. It allows bees to defend themselves against less threatening insects and survive, but forces them to forfeit their lives when facing the bigger dangers posed by a mammal. This costly act of sacrifice activates an alarm system that calls other bees into battle and enables the colony to take advantage of strength in numbers. Because the success of a beehive is dependent on collaborative efforts, bees have developed an extensive communication system, including the use of chemical odors known as pheromones. For example, when a bee stings, it releases one type of pheromone that alerts other bees to join the attack. Other pheromones are used to transmit different information, including membership in the colony, the location of a good food source or a new nesting site, or when to tend to the needs of the queen. Rock paintings from 6000 B.C. provide evidence that humans have been collecting and eating honey for thousands of years. Throughout the centuries, people have developed a working relationship with bees based on an understanding of their remarkable behaviors. This information has allowed us to design adequate protection from bee stings and to identify what behaviors will stimulate an attack. Still, each year, more than 50 persons in the United States die of allergic reactions to bee stings. While a bee sting is not a pleasant occurrence, the very survival of our agricultural production is dependent on the busy bee's pollinating activities. Therefore, it is best that we accept the bee as a friend instead of a foe.


Bees communicate with each other through pheromones, which are chemicals they emit in certain situations. For instance, when a bee stings, it releases a type of pheromone that tells the other bees there is a threat to the hive. This will make them sting, too. In this exercise, see if you can find your way through the maze to the honey just by smells. Because you are a bee, you will know what to do next just by the smell.
  • blindfolds
  • aromatic flower petals
  • pinecone
  • orange
  • vinegar
  • banana
  • lemon
  • jars for each smell
  • honey samples
1. Make a maze in your classroom using desks, chairs, and moveable blackboards. Hide the honey inside one of the desks. 2. Discuss what each of the smells could mean to a bee. For instance, one could mean "Go right." Another could mean "Danger, go back!" or "The honey is here." Participants should take careful notes, or they won't be successful bees. 3. Place the jars along the maze route, where they would lead a bee to the honey. 4. Students should split up into teams of three or four. Each team represents a colony of bees. One bee is blindfolded and goes through the maze, using only the scent "cues" to find the honey. The other members of the colony should guide the bee so he or she doesn't get hurt in the maze, but only the scents can tell the bee where to go next. Record what happens with each bee. 5. Try moving the jars around and changing the maze so that a bee following the cues would not be able to find the honey. 6. Discuss the results of the honey hunt and make a chart comparing each colony's success (or failure) to find the honey. Did everyone find the honey? Why or why not? 7. Discuss some of the real scents that bees use to help them find food, sense danger, and find their way back to the hive. Discuss what these real scents mean to a bee. Questions
  1. Was it easy to find the honey using the scent cues? Why or why not?
  2. Do humans use their sense of smell as a communication tool? What do some smells mean to you?


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    Haines, J.W. (1993, Apr) Bee-lieve it or not: You can take the sting out of your
    next trip. Backpacker, p. 26.
    Kirchner, W.H. & Towne, W.F. (1994, June) The sensory basis of the honeybee's
    dance language. Scientific American, p. 74.
    Morse, R. (1995, June) Insects that sting. Conservationist, p. 22.
    Watanabe, M.E. (1994, Aug 26) Pollination worries rise as honey bees decline.
    Science, p. 1170.
    Zahradnik, J. (1991) Bees, wasps and ants. London: Hamlyn Publishing Group.
    Beekeeping home page:

    International Bee Research Association: