Bee Behavior: Do Bees Bite?

Do Bees Bite?

Bees are flying insects best known for their role in pollination and for producing honey and beeswax. There are over 20,000 identified species of bees globally, most of which live a solitary lifestyle. However, certain species like honeybees are highly social and live in colonies with complex organization. Given their numbers and potential to defend a nest, an important question is whether bees use biting as a weapon alongside their infamous stings.

This article explores the biting behavior of different bee species, covering topics such as:

  • The use and effectiveness of mandible biting
  • Differences in biting across bee castes
  • Defensive biting by various bee species
  • Biting as a warning sign prior to stinging
  • Comparisons of bee bites to stings
  • Predatory biting by bees
  • Places on the human body where bee bites occur
  • First aid for bee bites

Understanding biting in the context of bee behavior provides insights into how to interpret this action if encountered and how best to respond. While less intimidating than stinging, biting still merits cautious respect of the bee’s signals.

bees landing on a beehive

The Use of Mandible Biting

Bees possess a pair of strong mandibles or jaws at the front of their head that assist with:

  • Biting and manipulating wax to build comb.
  • Collecting and carrying pollen back to the hive.
  • Moving objects around the nest.
  • Fighting nest intruders defensively.
  • Feeding larvae and queen bees by passing liquefied food.

In most cases, the mandibles are solely tools to handle tasks related to nest construction, brood care, and foraging. Only in defense do bees intentionally use them against animals that threaten the colony.

Differences in Biting Across Castes

The roles of bees influence their biting tendencies:

  • Queen bees essentially never bite. Their mandibles are small and used only to receive food from attending worker bees.
  • Drone bees have reduced use for their mandibles other than feeding themselves, so rarely bite. Their role is mating.
  • Worker bees perform defense, foraging, pollen collection, building, and nest cleaning. They do the most biting as part of their protective duties.

Thus, female worker bees account for the large majority of biting incidents since their mandibles actively serve multiple functions.

beekeeper harvesting honey

Species Known for Defensive Biting

When provoked, various bee species will bite as a warning or defense mechanism:

  • Honeybees frequently nip intruders as an initial warning prior to stinging. Their large colony sizes warrant strong defensive reactions.
  • Bumblebees often bite predators to deter them from raiding nests. Their more exposed nests increase this need.
  • Mason bees protecting nesting tunnels may bite appendages attempting to breach the cavity.
  • Carpenter bees can inflict painful bites with their robust mandibles if antagonized near their nesting wood.

Any highly social bee defending a large fixed nest exhibits more biting. But even solitary bees may bite if directly handled or trapped.

Biting as a Precursor to Stinging

Before deploying their stinger, honeybees and some other species first try biting as a warning:

  • The initial bite communicates a readiness to attack more forcefully. It provides a graded series of responses.
  • Biting prompts release to allow the bee to retreat without needing to sting. Some pursue this option if given a chance.
  • Defensive bees hope to deter intruders with a bite without sacrificing themselves through loss of the stinger.

Thus, biting is an indicator of high aggression. Heeding this signal by withdrawing quickly gives the bee an off-ramp before full escalation to stinging occurs.

bees landing on a beehive

How Bee Bites Compare to Stings

Bee bites differ from stings in several key ways:

  • A bite simply involves mandibles compressing and pinching tissue. Venom is not introduced.
  • Stings lodge a barbed stinger injecting venom that causes inflammation, pain, and can prompt severe allergic reactions.
  • Bites just break the skin in small pinprick wounds. Stings make larger, deeper punctures.
  • Pain from bites is very brief, akin to a needle stick. Sting pain radiates and can persist for hours or days.
  • Bites present a mainly mechanical injury. Stings induce a complex toxic and immunological injury.

While bites should not be taken lightly as a signal of aggression, the damage is minor and painvery brief compared to the intricate effects of venom injected by stings.

Predatory Biting By Bees

Some bees leverage their mandibles for hunting:

  • Orchid bees in the genus Eulaema decapitate territorial male bees from other hives to obtain fragrances.
  • Giant resin bees (Megachile pluto) use their sizable jaws to bite other bees and drink their hemolymph.
  • Vulture bees (Trigona hypogea) scavenge carcasses to obtain protein, biting through soft tissues to reach nutritious fluids.

Here the powerful mandibles allow access to sustenance, rather than direct defense. But the biting prowess of bees on display highlights the potential damage from defensive bites.

bees in a beehive

Where Bees Tend to Bite

When harassing or attacking larger animals, bees target areas like:

  • Exposed skin on the face, neck, and hands. These areas draw initial investigative interest.
  • Feet and legs when stepped near a disturbed nest.
  • Pets’ noses and ears since these protrude and contain many nerves.

The head region attracts attention due to carbon dioxide exhalations. Bees aim to bite sensitive areas to more efficiently deter intruders. Stings often soon follow on the same areas unless the threat retreats.

Treating Bee Bites

Bee bites should be promptly washed with soap and water to clean the wound. Topical antibiotic ointment prevents infection. Applying a cold pack can temporarily relieve pain. Severe swelling may indicate possible venom allergy from stings mixed with bites. Seek emergency care if you experience distressed breathing, heart rate changes, confusion, or loss of consciousness. While less risky than stings, bee bites warrant first aid to avoid complications.

bees landing on a beehive

Preventing Bee Bites and Stings

Exercising caution around known hives and nests reduces chances of bites and stings:

  • Move carefully and avoid sudden gestures. Don’t swat at bees.
  • Ensure bees have open routes to exist an area rather than feeling cornered.
  • Never disturb nests or hives. Call a professional for removals when needed.
  • Avoid wearing strong perfumes or bringing strongly scented food near colonies.
  • Check before drinking from open containers that may contain an investigating bee.

Respect the bee’s space and leave them an exit strategy. This stops encounters before they escalate toward biting and stinging.


Bees will use their toothed mandibles to bite as an initial warning or as a direct defensive attack when threatened. Their bites pinch and puncture skin, inflicting a painful but ultimately benign wound. However, biting indicates a high state of aggression that may soon lead to more dangerous stinging. Being able to recognize bee bites and react appropriately by retreating and seeking first aid can help prevent more extensive injuries. While bee bites themselves pose minimal health risks, their message should not be taken lightly when encountered. Heeding the bite enables coexistence rather than conflict.