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A Staff Report by the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Do bumblebees sting? Once or many times?


Dear Straight Dope:

As children, we always ran when a bumblebee was near, fearing that its sting would be in proportion with its size. It was also understood that, like a wasp, bumblebees could sting multiple times, unlike honey bees, which only sting once. Lately I have heard that bumblebees do not sting at all, which I doubt. Since I am unwilling to test this personally, I ask you: Do bumblebees sting? —Paul St. Louis

SDSTAFF Doug replies:

The only insect that stings only once is the worker honeybee, of which there are several species, all in the genus Apis. Even then, the sting is generally suicidal only if the worker stings a vertebrate, as opposed to another insect, because the barbs on a worker's sting don't lodge unless it's embedded in muscular flesh. Sometimes the sting doesn't get stuck, so even honeybees can sometimes sting more than once. Queen honeybees have non-barbed stings, as do all other female stinging bees, ants, and wasps, with the exception of some yellowjacket wasps (though the barbs are so small that the the sting rarely gets stuck). Males can't sting at all (the sting is a modified ovipositor, and only females lay eggs), and many bees and wasps lack stings altogether, or have a sting so weak it can't harm a human. Female bumblebees most certainly can sting, and can do so repeatedly.

As for the pain of the sting being proportional to size, that's not necessarily true. The pain is a function of three things, only two of which are size-related: (1) size of the sting itself a bigger sting will obviously hurt more than a small one, since it jabs in deeper; (2) the dose of venom received which, again, tends to be greater for larger species with larger venom glands; (3) the nature of the venom, which does NOT relate to the size of the bee or wasp, as some tiny species can have very potent venom (like fire ants and harvester ants), and some large species can have weak venom (like carpenter bees). The only way to know which sting hurts more is to let yourself get stung. That's exactly what one researcher, Justin O. Schmidt, tested on himself several years ago, and he published his findings as the now-infamous "Schmidt Sting Pain Index." Among the worst he tested were tarantula hawk wasps, bullet ants, and velvet ants.

Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

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Staff Reports are researched and written by members of the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board, Cecil's online auxiliary. Although the SDSAB does its best, these articles are edited by Ed Zotti, not Cecil, so accuracywise you'd better keep your fingers crossed.

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