Bees are flying insects closely related to ants and wasps. There are many different types of bees, the most popular (but not most numerous) of which are the honey bees.
All members of the bee family can be recognised by their dual pair of transparent wings, short, stocky bodies, and stingers. Honey bees are small, social insects that reach up to 220 mm. Unlike wasps, they have hairy, robust bodies with wide waist. They are coloured in black and yellow stripes, but the yellow is less vivid than the yellow stripes on wasps.
The majority of bee species, including honey bees, are social animals. They live in colonies which number in the thousands. There are some solitary species, namely the Solitary Bee, but they do not pose a threat to humans.
Honey bee (Genus Apis)
Each Honey bee (Genus Apis) colony has a strict social structure—workers, drones and a single queen. The queen lays eggs and reproduces for the span of her life while female workers collect pollen and feed the larvae. Drones exist solely to fertilise the female. Each year all members of the colony die off, except the queen bee. On average, honey bee queens reach 2,5 years, although some may reach up to six years. When a new queen bee is hatched, the old one leaves with half of the colony to form a new one.
Carpenter bees (Genus Xylocopa)
Other social bee species build colonies on specific locations. For example, Carpenter bees (Genus Xylocopa) burrow in dead wood where they build their nests. Also, there are parasitic bees which mimic the appearance and scent of other bee species.
Don’t worry—even if your home is infested with bees, there is rarely any immediate danger to you or your family. To reduce worry, read more in our ‘Which bees sting’ section. Still, the problem must be dealt with to prevent future complications.
If you spot a few bees flying around your front yard, there is no need to panic. Bees in your garden are not only normal, but needed for the reproduction and normal development of your plants. Regular sightings, on the other hand, might indicate a problem. If you need to look your step not to run into one—you definitely have a feral bee hive nearby. Check your premises’ structures for any openings where bees go in and out. The hive might also be outside, especially in upper corners and areas protected by rain and predators.
You might also run into a Carpenter bee nest. Carpenter bees differ from regular Honey bees—they are not domesticated, they do not produce edible honey and they do not build hives. Although they don’t feed on wood, they tunnel and burrow inside it. Carpenter bees nest in wooden walls, foundations, fences, decks, patio furniture and even window frames, as well as trees, tree trunks and dry wood. They are also slightly more aggressive than honey bees. While they do not cause immediate damage, with time they cause serious structural instability. They create perfectly round holes, about half a centimetre in diameter. They also leave a pile of sawdust below fresh holes.
Do not try to remove the hive yourself! Experienced bee-keepers know how to move the nest without irritating the bees. They use professional clothing equipment which minimises the risk of bee stings. They also know how to behave around bees without them feeling threatened. After the nest is removed, it is moved to a safer location, far from rural areas. The captured hive can also be domesticated.
Sometimes, if the beehive is particularly hard to reach, extermination might be needed. Despite popular belief, bees are not protected by the law in the UK and you will not be prosecuted if you kill them off. Still, such circumstances are rare and to be avoided. Honey bees population is on the decline around the world and specialists try their best to preserve them, as they are integral component of the biodiversity on Earth.
It’s good to know which bees sting in the UK in order not to overreact when you spot a run of the mill pollinator in your garden. We’ll go through the bees that don’t sting, as well as the bees that sting the worst! Keep in mind, a bee’s defensive instincts are stronger than yours and it’s always better to let it fly by rather than provoke it.
How to spot honey bees?
A slender wasp-like body covered in striped colouring. Females have a distinctive barbed stinger.
Are honey bees aggressive?
A honeybee is more likely to sting you than any other bee in the UK. These bees sting when they see you as a threat to their honey and nest, which could be at any time you stand between them and their nest, cast a shadow on it or cause the ground around it to vibrate.
How to spot sweat bees?
On their upper body sweat bees have very characteristic metallic colouring. Another way to recognize them is their behaviour – sweat bees are attracted to human sweat and might be observed attempting to lick the sweat off a person’s body.
Are sweat bees aggressive?
Sweat bees are not aggressive unless provoked, but possess a powerful sting. The venom from the sting is released into your body continuously, which is why the stinger needs to be removed as soon as possible.
How to spot tree bees?
Orange patch on upper body and dark colouring along the body. Often possess a white tip at the ‘tail’.
Are tree bees aggressive?
Tree bees are known to be more aggressive than other bumblebees and could sting people around their nest. However, their sting is considered to be less painful than that of a honeybee or sweat bee.
These are the bees which sting in the UK. In South and North America there are more aggressive bees – the infamous ‘killer bees’. Killer bees, however, are Africanized bees and prefer warmer climates, unlike the one we’ve got here in the UK!
Bees That Don’t Sting
Relax! Bee stings are painful and on isolated occasions cause severe reactions, but are generally harmless. Unlike many other insects, bees don’t spread any diseases. Bees venom is also beneficial, unless you are allergic to it. Scientific studies have shown that bee stings significantly lower the risk of arthritis, joint swelling and joint pain.
Honey bees are not considered a pest. They were probably the first domesticated insects. In fact, bee-keepers have been depicted on the walls of Ancient Egyptian temples.
Honey bees aren’t just beneficial to humans—they are of a huge importance to the existence of life on earth. Bees are the prime pollinator of flowering plants. No matter which bees sting and make us uncomfortable, pesticides should never be used on them. Pollinators transmit pollens between different specimens of the same plant species. This fertilises the plants and is their only way of reproduction. Feral honey bees are the biggest pollinator on Earth, but in recent years their numbers have seen a drastic decrease.
However they are still regarded as a wildlife nuisance. Feral bees often settle in human-made structures, especially in suburban areas and close to farmlands. They have venomous stings which cause irritating pain. Bees also emit a pheromone that is calling other members of the hive to attack the stung intruder. In severe cases, a bee sting can cause an allergic reaction, asphyxiation, swells and even death.
Bees also express swarming behaviour. When a new queen is hatched, the old one leaves the hive, along with thousands of workers and drones. In search of a new place to call home, the swarm of bees behaves more aggressive than usual and is known to attack people if threatened. Still, such accidents are rare occurrences.
Images by: 1. Andy Murray, 2. gbohne, 2. Adrian Alexander, 3. Bob Peterson, 4.Orange Aurochs, 5. Susan Ellis
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