Bumblebees can sting, at least the queens and
workers can, and their sting is not barbed like that of the honeybee, so they
can sting more than once. The photographs on the left shows the sting of a
Bombus lapidarius queen taken from different angles. I found her dead in the
garden one morning. It was early in the season so she may have been fighting
over a nest site with another queen, or she may just have died in the cold of
the night. Normally the sting remains hidden inside the last abdominal segment
when not being used.
Differences between honey bee and bumblebee stings
The reason a honey
bee dies after she has stung a human is that the barbs in her sting and our
relatively elastic skin prevent her pulling the sting out. Eventually she will
either be swatted to death by whomever she has stung, or she will pull so much
that the sting, poison sac and part of her abdominal contents will be pulled
out of her body and left hanging from the stuck sting, and she will fly off to die. If the sting and poison sac are left behind hanging out of your skin the muscles will probably still be attached to the poison sac and will still pump poison for a while, so you should pull the sting out. Some say it is best to pull, other say you should use a downwards brushing or scraping motion.
The evolution of the sting
The sting of the bumblebee and other bees evolved from the ovipositor, that is the tube that many female insects have that the eggs passes down and they use to position the egg in a suitable place.
It is believed that the
sting evolved to be used against other insects - who do not have elastic skin - so
the sting could easily be pulled out. It is only relatively recently that
mammals have become bee predators, so the honey bee sting will probably evolve to have
smaller, then no barbs. However this does not explain the smooth bumblebee
sting, and bumblebees are usually thought as less "advanced" than honey bees.
Also it is not the survival of the individual worker that is important in a
hive or nest, but the survival of the new queens and males, as only they will
go on to breed.
What does a bumblebee sting feel like?
I have never been stung
by a bumblebee, but I have heard that a bumblebee sting is less painful than a
wasp sting, some say it is also less painful than a honey bee sting, others
that it is more painful. Also the pain seems to be worse in certain parts of the body - the face and neck for instance. And others complain of the swelling and irritation lasting for days after the initial pain of the sting has worn off. Bumblebees are reluctant to sting, and appear to do
so only if they are mishandled or their nest is threatened. However I have
heard recently that some species of bumblebees found in America (north and
south) are more aggressive than European species. So always treat bumblebees
with respect as there are some people who have an allergy to bee venom that can
lead to death even after just a single sting if not treated promptly.
Stings cannot regrow
I am often asked if a sting can regrow. The answer is no. I imaging if it is just the sting itself that has broken off the bumblebee would manage to lead a normal life, as most bumblebees will go through life never having to use their sting anyway.
Male bumblebees have no sting
Male bumblebees cannot
sting as they do not have a sting. In males the part of the body that becomes
the sting in females becomes the genital capsule (see the photograph on the
left) in males, so is used in mating. The structure of the genital capsule of each species differs slightly, and can be used in identifying dead bumblebees.