Ever since I saw “The Bee Movie”, and probably before, I had known that bees die when they sting someone. But what I never thought to consider was why. It doesn’t really make much sense- why would they evolve a stinger to protect themselves only to die when they use it? And why do they die when they use their stinger?
It is also important to note that this only affects honeybees. Other types of bees do not put their stingers in so deep, and can avoid the tragic fate of honeybees’ stuck stingers.
First, it is important to know how the stinger mechanism works. It’s actually an effective defense mechanism- humans are what ruin it. When a bee stings an organism, (usually another type of insect) the stinger is driven in as deep as possible, so that it can poison the whole body faster. However, when bees sting humans, their skin is much deeper than an insect’s skin (obviously), and the network of tissues we house in our dermis layer forces the stinger to stay put.
The stinger can get so deep (and can get so stuck) due to its screw-like shape. It is long and thin, with barbs in alternating directions that allow the bee to deliver more venom and get deeper, but ultimately also to cause more pain and get stuck.
So why does this cause honeybees to die? Why can’t they just fly away without their stinger? Well, they do fly away without their stingers. However, when they fly away, the force needed to pull away combined with the force the human dermis has on its stinger, means its thorax is ripped in two, effectively killing it.
Let’s talk about bee venom. It is pretty potent, and can easily kill small organisms (other insects). However, unless you are allergic, it is pretty non-toxic to humans- it will most likely cause swelling, redness, and itching at the site of the sting. Both of those effects are due to the fact that bees deliver about 50 μg of venom at most. Also, weirdly enough, scientists say it smells like bananas. The scent is to alert the rest of the hive that danger is nearby.
More importantly though, it contains a wide variety of enzymes and other peptides that are being researched to be used for a variety of purposes. One of the most notable is that bee venom contains a large number of anticoagulants, which is what causes it to be so fatal to small organisms, as well as what causes the swelling in humans. There are five compounds that contribute to this effect, and they are being studied in different combinations to create more effective anticoags. Additionally, there are components of the venom that have been effective in fighting MS, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s, as well as cancer. However, there is much more research to be done on the exact molecules that cause these effects.
So how did this (actually pretty effective) defense mechanism evolve? Many insects from the Hymenoptera order have stingers (wasps, ants, and other bees), but the genus Apis, which includes 9 different species of honeybee, is the only one with such an extreme stinger. It is believed that the honeybees we know today evolved from spechiform wasps 130 million years ago. Honeybees have always been an important part of agriculture, with evidence of honey-hunting skills being found in Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and many other ancient civilizations. It wasn’t until science and technology developments in the last few centuries, however, that bees reached the level of importance and necessity they are today.