A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Do honeybees realize that if they sting you they'll die?

September 5, 2001

Dear Straight Dope:

I was talking to a friend about bees the other day, and started wondering something. When a bee stings you it usually dies when its stinger gets stuck. My question is, do the bees have enough intelligence to know that stinging equals death? Or are they too unaware to even realize that they're on kamikaze missions? Your answer may shape the way we look at bees--as either brave and noble crusaders, sacrificing themselves for the good of their hive, or bad tempered and stupid pests, blindly attacking anything in sight without regard or even consideration for their own well-being.

We need to restrain the impulse to anthropomorphize, Jim. Brave and noble crusaders, or bad tempered and stupid pests? What are we talking about here, bees or lawyers?

Nonetheless you raise a good question, which has puzzled many people throughout history, including Charles Darwin. He came up with an answer, though he still found it somewhat mystifying, since his work came before we knew much about genetics. First off, you need to bear in mind that of the over 30,000 species of bees in the world, only the eight species of the genus Apis (true honeybees) have barbed stingers and therefore "suicidal" workers. Suicide is uncommon among bees, and to understand why honeybees do it you need to understand the ecological and evolutionary context of this particular behavior. 

The main thing you need to know, as Darwin did, is that honeybee workers are born effectively sterile. They can't reproduce on their own, so their only option for passing on their genes is by helping their colony survive to produce queens and drones. This is not true of most other bees. In a sense, then, a worker has already sacrificed its own personal fitness (in Darwin's own terms, "fitness" means reproductive output relative to other members of your species), so there is no reason why it shouldn't sacrifice its life as well, especially if it can help protect the colony by doing so. 

But thinking of this as bravery would be wrong. The bees' self-sacrifice is instinctive, programmed by millions of years of evolution, because colonies with "suicidal" workers survived better than those without. The bees have no real choice in the matter, and having a choice is the essence of bravery. Conversely, it's not blind or stupid, either, because they only attack when the hive (or the bee) is being threatened; they don't just throw themselves at anything that comes close to them while they're out foraging. Migrating swarms of honeybees rarely attack people, for instance, because a swarm is a colony looking for a place to build a hive, and they have nothing to defend. If they feel threatened, they can all just fly away. No, best to think of them as little robots with some first-rate programming, designed to do whatever it takes to get the job done.

By the way, Honey Bees (there are several species) are the only ones that normally lose their sting. There are barbs on the stings of bumblebees and yellowjackets, but they are insufficient to hook into the flesh enough to pull away from the body. Every now and then, maybe, but generally not.

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