Dear Dr. Universe: My daughter is asking, why do bees have pointy behinds? -Asma, Pakistan
Dear Asma and Friends:
Lots of bees have pointy behinds, but not all of them. The ones that do have a pointy behind, or a stinger, can use it to help defend their homes, food, and fellow bees. That’s what I found out from my friend Megan Asche, a graduate student at Washington State University who studies honey bees and takes super close-up photos of insects.
Asche explained that when a honey bee adult emerges, it chews through one of the waxy hexagon cells in the hive before pushing itself out into the world. For the first two days of the bee’s life, it can’t sting. The bee has a pointy behind, but the venom-releasing organs attached to her stinger are still growing. She needs to walk around and eat before the stinger fully forms.
If you get stung by a bee, it’s going to be a female. Males don’t have a stinger.
Female bees’ ancestors used to lay eggs inside plants or animals using a kind of shovel-shaped thing on their rear end called an ovipositor. After a while, they didn’t need their ovipositor, so it stopped being used for laying eggs and instead became a stinger bees can use to help defend their home.
When a new queen honey bee hatches, she will use her stinger to damage the wax cells where her rival queen bees are growing. She also has to look for a mate. Once she has found a mate, she doesn’t need her stinger anymore. If there’s any stinging to be done, that’s the job of the worker bees.
In one of the photographs Asche took in the lab, you can see that a honey bee stinger has lots of tiny sharp parts, or barbs. The little barbs on a honey bee stinger are long enough to stick in your skin. Bees don’t want to hurt you, but sometimes they will sting if they feel threatened. Once a honey bee stings you, it dies. That’s because its stinger is attached to important organs inside of the abdomen.
“They are essentially making the greatest sacrifice,” Asche said.
When you get stung, the bee will release a pheromone, or a chemical. The bees are basically flagging you. Other bees can sense this pheromone in the air and may show up on the scene. Their stingers may be tiny, but they sure can use them to protect their fellow bees.
“Worker bees are defending their sisters,” added Asche. “They are protecting their home and their food.”
In the end, a pointy stinger can help a family of bees survive. That’s really important for humans and other animals, too. Bees are pollinators. We rely on them to help plants grow and reproduce so that we can have oxygen, food, and a healthy planet.
Can you think of other ways insects might defend and protect themselves in nature? Tell me about it sometime at Dr.Universe@wsu.edu.