The stinger of bees and wasps is a special organ. It is not only used to deliver venom to the victim in the case of a sting, but it is also used as an ovipositor, or egg laying organ. The stinger, a tubular structure, is somewhat like a hypodermic needle, but also has an outer sheath like a cannula. The mechanisms of this organ and how it allows the bee or the wasp to deliver a sting in just a matter of moments is amazing.
Since the stinger of a bee or wasp also functions as an ovipositor, it is found only in the females. The abdomen of a bee is made up of seven visible segments. In the seventh segment of the abdomen of a sterile worker bee or a queen bee is the stinger. The stinger is a tubular structure that is somewhat like a hypodermic needle, but has an outer sheath like a cannula.
All the parts of the stinger are stored inside the sting chamber when not in use. At the top of the stinger is a venom gland, which produces the bee’s venom. There is a little tube going from the venom gland to the venom sac. Below the sac is another tube with a bulb where venom is stored and valves that allow the venom to be pumped into the victim. A sheath protects the stinger inside the female’s body. The stinger is pushed out through this sheath and into the flesh of the victim when the bee stings. The stinger of a honeybee has barbs that hook into the skin of some of its victims, including humans. When a honeybee stings, these barbs prevent the bee from removing the stinger from the victim. As the bee flies away, the stinger is torn out of its abdomen, along with the venom sac and part of the digestive tract. Within minutes the bee is dead. Other bees, wasps, and hornets do have small barbs on their stingers, but they are so small that the stinger is easily removed; and these bees, wasps, and hornets can sting again and again. A queen honeybee also does not lose its stinger.
Parasitic wasps use their ovipositors to lay eggs rather than to sting. However, they can inject paralyzing venom into the bodies of insects in which they lay their eggs.
A University of Illinois website explains that up to half of a bee’s venom is made of a substance called melitin, a chemical that causes pain, affects blood vessels, and damages tissues. Two other substances, Photolipase A2 and Hyaluronidase help the toxins to spread and increase the amount of swelling at the sting site. The victim’s body responds to the bee’s sting by producing histamine, which causes localized itching, redness, and swelling. A bee sting delivers more venom than a wasp sting, but a wasp can sting repeatedly. A hornet sting is more venomous than a wasp sting and much more painful. Also, when a wasp or hornet stings, a chemical called an alarm pheromone is secreted, and this calls other nearby wasps and hornets to come help attack the victim.
Once the stinger is inside the victim, it works like an automated pump. The longer it stays in, the more poison it injects as it can continue to pump venom for several minutes even after the bee has flown away.
Although bees and wasps are very interesting creatures and it is fascinating to study their habits, their stingers are a mechanism to be respected. They are very useful defense organs and can be a source of pain, sickness, or even death for a careless victim.