This is an article from Curious Kids, a series for children. The Conversation is asking kids to send in questions they’d like an expert to answer. All questions are welcome – serious, weird or wacky!
Do bees ever accidentally sting other bees? Evie, age 8, Stanwell Park
Your question is super interesting. I have spent many years studying and working with different kinds of bees and I’ve never seen a bee accidentally sting another bee – but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. So, I’ve done some reading to try to find out if anybody else has.
There are many different kinds of bees and some live in groups with other bees. The most famous of the bees that live in big groups are honey bees (probably because their honey is so tasty).
Honey bees that live in the same hive are called nestmates because they share a nest. The queen bee lays all the eggs in the hive and has mostly daughters. So usually nestmates are sister-bees that get along very well. They cooperate to feed their little sisters and brothers, collect food, build and protect their nests from animals (or bees from other nests) that want to eat them or their honey.
Because sometimes honey bees steal nectar (the main ingredient for making honey) from other nests, some bees, called guard bees, stand at the door and sniff the bees that land there with their antennae. If the newly landed bee smells like she belongs in the nest, the guard lets her nestmate in. If not, the guard will bite and sting the intruder bee, preventing the intruder from entering the nest.
In experiments where scientists investigate how bees tell whether a bee is their nestmate or not, bees sometimes fail to recognise their nestmates and end up accidentally stinging their sisters! They also sometimes let bees into the hive that are not their nestmates.
So yes, Evie, when trying to defend their nests from intruders, bees sometimes accidentally sting their nestmate sisters, but only because they mistake their sisters for intruders.
I can’t say that I blame them. I’m not sure I’d be so good at recognising my sisters if I had thousands of them.
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Marianne Peso has received past funding from the Australian Produce Council and currently works for the Australian Research Centre-funded Industrial Transformation Training Centre for Fruit Fly Biosecurity Innovation.