Why can’t the queen bee sting you?

Beekeepers can handle thousands of bees annually, and they get stung on a regular basis. But there’s one bee that never stings a beekeeper.

A queen bee has a long, smooth-shafted stinger and a very large poison sac. But the queen bee won’t sting you because she stays in the hive. She only stings other bees — specifically, other queen bees. Every spring, when honeybee colonies reproduce, about 20 new queens are born. The new queens fight to the death for control of the hive.

When a new queen emerges from her special wax chamber, or cell, she begins patrolling like a policeman — and announces her presence with a series of “toot” noises that cause worker bees to freeze in their tracks. In a process called “assassination,” a new queen will chew a hole in the cells of other developing queens, and kill the occupant with a sting. If two queens emerge at once, they’ll fight — tumbling, grappling and biting – each trying to sting her rival to death.

Even the gentle worker bees will chase and bite new queens during this time. Workers might surround the queens, often immobilizing them. And they appear to treat queens differently, based perhaps on factors such as age or kinship.

The stings of workers and queens have been evolutionarily selected for different functions: the worker for defending the hive, and the queen for killing rival queens. While a worker will recognize a beekeeper as a threat, and respond by stinging, a queen does not recognize a beekeeper as a threat. Even aggressive newly emerged queens must be manhandled, squeezed or pinched before they can be provoked to sting. There are beekeepers who have handled thousands of queens and have never have been stung.

The sting apparatus of a queen bee is morphologically different from that of a worker. Queens have a much larger venom sac, and a smooth, barb-less shaft that pulls out easily from the victim. Workers have barbed shafts that cannot be pulled out of thick-skinned victims. This is why a worker bee dies after it stings you. The queen bee can sting her sisters repeatedly, although a single sting is usually fatal. The queen’s venom is also chemically different from worker venom, because it is designed specifically for killing other bees. A queen’s sting is reported to feel more itchy than painful.

After reproduction and queen fighting, only one queen is left in the colony. She will take one or more mating flights and mate with several males before returning to the hive. Once mated, she takes on a new role as egg-layer. She gains about 25% in body weight and her abdomen becomes swollen with eggs. It is not clear if she loses her ability to sting, but it appears that she not be provoked to do it. When the colony is big enough, the old queen will lay a set of eggs in queen cells, and depart with a swarm of workers before the new queens emerge.

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