Last updated on October 23rd, 2023 at 09:00 pm
The bumblebee (Bombus) is considered a friendly representative within the family of true bees (Apidae). The furry insects leave their winter quarters in spring much earlier than bees, wasps and hornets and are therefore among the most important pollinators in early spring. However, compared to the other striped flying insects, bumblebees are said to bite rather than sting. Thereby, many people ask themselves the questions: are bumblebees dangerous and how do you have to treat bites?
Sting or bite?
The question of whether a bumblebee stings or bites is related to the insects’ peacefulness. Like all bees, bumblebees have a stinger and even use it very successfully for defense. However, the key point about the animals is that they do not sting frequently and remain calm even in direct contact with humans. This leads to the assumption that the insects do not sting. In fact, bumblebees have a distinctive defense mechanism that always takes place in the same way:
Keep in mind that different species of bumblebees react differently aggressively:
- Tree bumblebee (Bombus hypnorum): aggressive
- Field bumblebee (Bombus pascuorum): particularly peaceful
- Stone bumblebee (Bombus lapidarius): calm
- Meadow bumblebee (Bombus pratorum): quiet
- Dark earth bumblebee (Bombus terrestris): especially peaceful
- Garden bumblebee (Bombus hortorum): quiet
- Moos bumblebee (Bombus muscorum): quiet, highly endangered
- Sand bumblebee (Bombus veteranus): quiet, highly endangered
The tree bumblebee is considered the most aggressive bumblebee species in Europe and becomes particularly aggressive if you get too close to the nest. Especially in midsummer, tree bumblebees can react particularly aggressively. You should be wary of these, as the animals with the brown thorax and almost stripless, dark abdomen are less likely to lift their middle leg than their kin. The dark ground bumblebee, on the other hand, is arguably one of the most peaceful species, which is what makes it so popular as a pollinator insect. If you buy bumblebees as pollinators in stores, they are usually Dark Earth Bumblebees.
As soon as you approach a bumblebee and it feels threatened, it will initially show this by lifting one of its middle legs, which will be pointed directly at the potential danger. It is never one of the front or rear legs, only one of the middle legs. Which middle leg is lifted varies from bumblebee to bumblebee and is often dependent on the position of the human or pet to the insect.
If the raised leg has been ignored and the bumblebee still feels threatened, it will begin to buzz distinctly. This is not comparable to the animal humming when you are collecting nectar inside a flower, as the pattern of vibrations is different.
If this warning sign has also been ignored, the bumblebee turns on its back while humming and stretches its abdomen in the direction of the attacker. At the same time, the middle leg usually remains raised. Now it is time for you to leave the insect alone, otherwise a sting will inevitably occur.
It becomes especially dangerous for you when bumblebees are on their back and execute the sting. From this point on, it can happen within a moment that the insect decides to sting. Move away from the insect at this point at the latest.
You see, bumblebees are usually not dangerous, because they show you exactly when to expect a sting.
The insects can bite, but the biting tools do not penetrate the skin and are used exclusively for opening flowers. The assumption that bumblebees bite is wrong and if you have been attacked by one of the peaceful buzzers, it is always a sting, even if the wound seems quite small. Bumblebees only bite if they get caught in your hair or clothing. However, there is no danger from the bite, because they just want to escape.
Tip: As with bees and wasps, bumblebees are purely the females, which have a stinger. However, the males, the drones, defend the nest by ramming into the attacker at high speed, which can be painful, especially in the face, as the insects become small projectiles in the process.
If you or loved ones have been stung by bumblebees, they will experience symptoms similar to those of a bee sting. The big difference here is only the amount of venom, as bumblebees do not have barbed stingers. This means that the bumblebee can sting several times in a row, although the insects usually flee as soon as you have stung. Of course, this does not apply to the defense of the nest, where up to 600 animals can attack and sting several times. After a sting, the following symptoms appear:
- Swelling of up to 10 cm
- severe pain around the sting wound
- sting site heats up
- white area around the sting
These symptoms usually last for a period of up to 24 hours. Especially the swelling hurts and itches, but you should not scratch, otherwise it will result in an open wound with risk of infection.
The majority of the population can enjoy the swelling to subside after one day, while a small part with sensitive immune systems usually have to wait until a week. Bumblebee stings are particularly bad for people with an allergy to insect venom. Since bumblebee venom is similar to bee venom, it contains the neurotoxin apamin, which contains the following amino acids:
These are among the most toxic substances within the venom and, along with other proteins, can pose a danger to people with allergies. People with an allergy, when stung, may suffer the following symptoms in addition to pain and a classic swelling:
- Gastrointestinal discomfort
- Shortness of breath
- anaphylactic shock
All these symptoms can occur within a period of ten to thirty minutes and pose an acute danger to the life of the allergy sufferer. However, since the concentration of bumblebee venom is not as high as in other insects or bees, there are quite few deaths from the sting of a bumblebee. However, you should treat the sting as soon as possible. As with bees, wasps and hornets, healthy people should also be careful not to be stung in the mouth, throat and pharynx. The swelling could lead to blockage of the airways.
Tip: The sting of bumblebees is not sharp enough in itself to penetrate human skin. However, when attacked, they fly so fast that the impact drives the stinger deep into the skin, which can be very painful, or if you hold the animal or step on it, which allows the force necessary for the sting.
Treat a bumblebee sting
Once you or your family has been stung by a bumblebee, you should follow these steps to treat it:
- cool the sting site
- use ice cubes or wrapped cold packs for this purpose
- apply cool compresses over a long period of time
- do not scratch
- use antihistamine ointments
- these will relieve the itching
These methods are very effective in treating a bumblebee sting. If the symptoms have not subsided after a period of two to three days, you should see a doctor. They can check the sting and treat it if the classic methods do not work. Alternatively, you can use home remedies that destroy the proteins within the venom, thus relieving the swelling and itching and providing faster relief. These would be:
Slice fresh lemons and rub them on the affected sting area. After that, leave the lemon slice on the skin for some time. The acid will destroy the corresponding molecules, which will lead to relief of the symptoms.
Apply some medicinal alcohol to the sting via a cotton pad. This cleans the wound and destroys the corresponding molecules.
Gently heat a spoon and press it on the wound. The heat acts like a sting healer, which makes the home remedy particularly effective.
Allergy sufferers should be permanently observed after a sting. Likewise, you should contact a doctor out of sheer precaution to be on the safe side. If symptoms worsen, be sure to contact an emergency physician.
Tip: Even if you suffer from an insect venom allergy, a second sting from the animals may be much less dangerous than the first. Since the venom remains in the body only in small quantities, the organism is often better able to protect itself against stings despite the allergens they contain.