This summer’s wetter conditions have created great conditions for flowering plants. Flowers provide sweet nectar and protein-rich pollen, attracting many insects, including bees.
Commercial honey bees are also thriving: the New South Wales population has reportedly bounced back after the drought and bushfires
While you may have seen a lot of bees around lately, there’s no reason to be afraid. Most bees are only aggressive when provoked, and some don’t sting at all. And some bee-like insects are actually flies.
We are experts on honey bee and other insect behaviour. So let’s look at which bees to watch out for, and how to avoid being stung this summer.
Is it a bee, or a wanna-bee?
Bees in Australia comprise both introduced and native species.
Australia is also home to about 2,000 native bees, including 11 stingless species.
Stingless bees live in colonies and produce honey. Other native species, such as blue banded bees and leaf cutter bees, are capable of stinging but are rarely aggressive.
Some insects we see around flowers are actually harmless hoverflies. But their yellow and black stripes mean they are often mistaken for bees.
Bees out and about
Bees on flowers are usually more interested in the food they’re collecting than the people around them. However, if you’re concerned about encountering one on your morning walk or in the garden, there are simple ways to mitigate the risk.
Bees sting when they feel threatened. So when you see one, move slowly and keep your distance. If bees fly close to you, avoid sudden movements such as swatting them away.
And wear closed shoes where bees might fly close to the ground, such as around clover or fallen jacaranda flowers.
What if I see a swarm?
In spring and into summer, healthy honeybee colonies may reproduce by dividing into two. One part of the colony stays at the hive and the other goes looking for a new home.
Worker bees and the queen bee leave the hive in a swarm and find a spot to stay temporarily while scout bees find a new home. That’s when you might see a swarm on a tree, vehicle or building.
Once scout bees find a new home, they return to the swarm and communicate the location via the “waggle dance”. Once a sufficient number of scouts agree on a new nest site, the swarm lifts into the air and flies to its new home.
Curious Kids: how do bees make honey?
Don’t panic if you encounter a stationary swarm of bees. The bees will sting only if threatened. But keep your distance.
Moving swarms can pose a higher sting risk, and should be avoided. If you encounter one, move a safe distance away, or indoors if possible. When moving away, avoid fast movements or swatting.
Swarms are usually present for a few hours or days before they move to a permanent location. If the bees are in a risky location (for example, near a footpath or other busy areas), call a beekeeper to safely remove them.
Stingless native bees swarm for two reasons: mating and fighting.
Mating swarms involve males congregating outside a hive to mate with the queen. Fighting swarms occur when a colony of stingless bees attempts to invade another colony. They do not usually pose a risk to humans.
Native bees capable of stinging are solitary, so don’t swarm. However, male solitary bees are known to group together on branches in the evening.
When a bee sting happens
Death and serious injury from bee stings is rare. But in Australia, bees are responsible for more hospital visits than snakes or spiders. European honeybees are also responsible for more allergic reactions than any other insect.
Only female bees can sting. Honeybees can only sting once, and die shortly after. This is because their stinger is barbed – once it stings something, the bee can’t pull the stinger out. Instead the stinger pulls free from the bee’s abdomen and the bee dies.
Other species can sting multiple times because their stingers are not barbed.
When a bee’s stinger enters your skin, it injects venom from a sac on its abdomen. When this happens, you’re likely to experience temporary swelling and redness.
For most people, reactions to bee venom are shortlived. To limit the amount of venom injected by the bee, quickly remove the sting using the edge of your fingernail or credit card.
In some cases, stings can lead to severe allergic reactions, including anaphylaxis. If you think you may have an allergy to bee stings, speak to your doctor.
And seek medical advice if you are stung in the face or neck, if significant swelling occurs or if you develop symptoms such as wheezing, light-headedness or dizziness.
Learning to like bees
Bees and other insects play an important role in our food production, by moving pollen from one plant to another. They do a similar job in your garden, helping flowers and fruits to flourish.
But worldwide, bees and other pollinators face many threats, including climate change, misuse of pesticides and habitat loss. We must do what we can to keep pollinator populations healthy.
So if you’re out and about and see a bee, or even a swarm, try not to panic. The bees are probably focused on the job at hand, and not interested in you at all.
The prize for the most painful and sometimes deadly (more on that later) stings in the insect kingdom goes to … wasps, bees and ants.
There are many insects that bite, such as beetles and dragonflies, or suck your blood with long hypodermic mouthparts (mosquitoes, for instance, and sandflies). But none of these are deadly in themselves.
Mosquitoes do transmit deadly diseases, such as malaria and dengue. But it’s not the mosquito bite as such that kills; it’s the tiny parasitic microorganism that the mosquito transmits.
It’s really bees, wasps and ants – a group known as Hymenoptera – that can claim the title of deadliest insects. How did they evolve to be so painful?
How insects stings evolved
Many wasps are parasitic and developed long pointy hypodermic needles (or ovipositors) to inject their eggs into their hosts. Over evolutionary time, some of these parasitic wasps changed their lifestyle and became predatory. Some even went on to feed on pollen and nectar (bees).
What happened to the ovipositor when wasps no longer needed to inject eggs? It became a pointy sting, a device for subduing prey with venom, as well as laying eggs.
It’s important to remember that only female wasps, bees and ants can sting; males don’t have the right apparatus.
Many of these stinging wasps, bees and ants have also become highly social insects. This means they live in large colonies such as honeybee hives, or ant nests. In these colonies, generally only a pair (a queen and a male drone, in the case of honeybees) or a few individuals reproduce.
All the rest are genetically and anatomically sterile females, and they do all the work inside and outside the hive or nest. These workers no longer need an ovipositor to lay eggs and it has become their primary weapon of choice, solely devoted to defence of the nest.
Workers use the sting to defend the wasp or bee nest, or ant colony. Queen bees lay eggs with their ovipositor and can also sting, but are usually tucked away in the nest far from harm.
Worker bees can sting humans only once – their barbed sting lodges in our skin and doesn’t retract, so the entire sting and the poison gland breaks free from the bee when it stings. The worker bee dies soon after and releases alarm pheromone, which alerts other workers that the nest is under threat.
More bees sting and release more alarm pheromones, attracting more alarmed bees … you get the picture. If you’re stung, remove the sting as soon as possible – this minimises the amount of venom injected.
A very small number of people (about one or two in every 100) can become hypersensitive after a bee sting. They become allergic to the venom, and their reaction becomes stronger when stung in future.
A highly allergic person may suffer anaphylactic shock from the sting, which can be life-threatening and requires medical treatment. A self-injecting EpiPen containing adrenalin is used to treat anaphylactic shock.
The most painful
Another common introduced stinger in Australia is the European wasp, Vespula germanica. This wasp’s sting doesn’t get stuck in our skin, so they can inflict multiple stings when annoyed or provoked. A very good way of provoking a large number of European (or any other) wasps is to disturb their nest – never do this.
A very small percentage of people can also develop an allergic reaction to European wasp stings, just like honeybee stings. In severe cases, this can cause anaphylactic shock.
Arizona entomologist Justin O. Schmidt developed the Schmidt Pain Index 30 years ago to rank the painfulness of wasp, bee and ant stings on a four-point scale.
Zero on the Schmidt pain index is the feeling of an insect that can’t sting you, such as Australia’s native stingless bees. Two is the familiar pain of a honeybee. Four is reserved for just a few heavy hitters, such as a very large spider-killing wasp, or the infamous bullet ant (Paraponera clavata) of South America.
The notorious and excruciating pain of the bullet ant lasts for 24 hours. Schmidt has been stung by more than 100 insects to create his scale, and was awarded the 2015 Ig Nobel Biology Prize for his efforts.
Some of the most common painful stingers in the Australian bush are native bulldog ants of the genus Myrmecia. These are some of the largest ants in the world and combine a painful sting with an aggressive, take-no-prisoners attitude. On top of this, many species can jump. They rate up to three on the Schmidt Pain Index.
Bulldog or jack-jumper ants have impressive long, toothed and curved jaws, but it’s the sting at the end of their abdomen that does the damage.
My most painful memory as a boy was annoying a bulldog ant nest in the Sydney bushland with a stick. Eventually a huge worker bulldog ant crawled up out of sight underneath my stick and gave me a sting on the thumb I thoroughly deserved – and will never forget.