Discover 5 Bees Found in California: Ranked by Most Painful Sting

Bee, Beehive, Honey Bee, Honey, UK
iStock.com/William Jones-Warner

Written by Ella Coppola

Published: May 24, 2023

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When you think of bees, the iconic image of black and yellow honey bees happily living and working in hives comes to mind. However, California boasts a diverse and unique array of bees. These remarkable creatures play a crucial role in humanity’s survival, with honeybees providing essential agricultural assistance and holding great significance for farming.

In California, bees exhibit an impressive range of sizes, colors, and fuzziness. Some bees display aggression and pose a threat, while others peacefully contribute to the natural order. Certain bees lead solitary lives, while others thrive within large social communities. Moreover, California has numerous common bees and rare and endangered species. The state boasts over 1,600 known species of bees. These include both native species and introduced species from other parts of the world.

California is known for its remarkable biodiversity, and when it comes to native bees, the state has a significant number of species that are exclusive residents. Approximately 500 species of bees are native to California, meaning they are found only within the state’s borders. These native bees play a crucial role in pollination, supporting the state’s diverse ecosystems and contributing to the vitality of California’s flora.

While bees are fascinating and diverse creatures that offer vital services to humanity, they can become problematic if they establish nests near or within residential areas. Since the beginning of time, bees have proved themselves beneficial through the pollination of crops and feeding on nuisance insects to control their populations. Still, use caution if you encounter one of our black and yellow friends.

 However, despite their beauty, if stung by a bee, you will encounter a lot of pain. The most frequently encountered bees with potent stings in California include paper wasps, yellow jackets, and honey bees. However, numerous other bee species can deliver a powerful sting. 

Below is a ranking of the common bees, wasps, and other insects found in California, from most to least painful sting.

Tarantula Hawk

tarantula hawk close up

Tarantula hawk

close up

Scientific Name: Pepsini 

Pain Scale 4.0

Unfortunately, Tarantula hawks deliver one of the most painful stings on any insect, which is common in California and the Southwest. Despite being a solitary wasp, the tarantula hawk possesses one of the most painful stings. As their name suggests, these wasps prey on tarantulas. 

American entomologist Justin Shmidt created a pain scale for Stinging Insects rated from 0.0 to 5.0 on the Schmidt Pain Scale. For example, the tarantula hawk scored 4.0 out of 5.0 and 

described by Shmidt as “blinding, fierce, and shockingly electric.

Luckily, the sting is not dangerous unless you are unfortunate enough to develop an allergic reaction. The area where you are stung may remain red for up to a week, but the pain from most stings subsides within just a few minutes.

Tarantula Hawks can reach up to 11 centimeters in length and are 133 known species. Their habitat of hunting tarantulas gives these insects their name. Adult tarantula hawks receive nutrition from nectar, but female hawks will battle spiders for food for their offspring. Then, the females will pierce the tarantula with a sharp, curved sting and inject venom into the spider. The venom permanently paralyzes but keeps the spider alive. 

Paper Wasp

A Northern Paper Wasp is collecting nectar from a yellow Goldenrod flower. Also known as a Dark Paper Wasp. Edwards Gardens, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Paper Wasps generally do not attack humans unless they or their nest feel threatened.

Scientific Name: Polistes dominula

Pain Scale: 3.0

Although paper wasps sometimes exhibit aggression, they generally do not attack humans unless they or their nest feel threatened. Instead, their stings are primarily defensive, aimed at protecting their colony. When a paper wasp stings, it releases toxins that can harm mammals such as birds, wolves, cats, and dogs. 

These wasps have a distinct waist like other wasp species, with elongated legs hanging down while in flight. Their bodies feature black and brown hues, with yellow or orange markings depending on the specific species. The wings of paper wasps are gray, and they possess a smooth stinger enabling them to sting their victims repeatedly.

Paper wasps rank at 3.0 on the Schmidt Pain Index regarding their sting. Being stung by a paper wasp is described as a sensation akin to spilling acid on the skin, accompanied by a bitter taste in the mouth. The upside is that paper wasps will not sting unless near their nest. Unless provoked, trapped, or pressed against the skin, they are unlikely to sting. 

Paper wasps are social creatures and will aggressively defend their nest, so they must exercise caution when close to their nesting areas. However, if they are away from their nest, the likelihood of being stung by them decreases significantly.

Yellowjacket 

An Eastern Yellowjacket on a Leaf

Feeding on a carnivorous diet, yellow jackets primarily prey on other insects like flies and bees.

Scientific Name: Vespula vulgaris

Pain Scale: 2.0

Often confused with their bee counterparts, yellow jackets are way more aggressive. While honey bees and yellow jackets share a similar yellow and black striped appearance, honey bees possess a hairy or fuzzy body, whereas yellow jackets are smooth and shiny. 

Yellow jackets encompass numerous species, varying in appearance, but they usually sport yellow and black striped or white and black branded abdomens. Yellow jackets resemble paper wasps, except they have a broader waist and shorter legs. They also share with paper wasps the presence of a smooth stinger.

When stung by a yellow jacket, one experiences a sharp and prolonged pain, lasting up to 10 minutes, with burning at the sting site that may persist for one to two hours. Upon stinging, the yellow jacket pierces the skin and injects venom, causing sudden pain. Unlike bumblebees, which can only sting humans once as their stinger becomes embedded, yellow jackets can sting multiple times. 

For most individuals, a yellow jacket sting causes minor discomfort that subsides within a few hours. However, symptoms such as redness and swelling may occur around the sting site. On the Schmidt Pain Index, a yellow jacket sting is rated 2.0.

Honey Bee

Honeybee on bold yellow flower

75% of the world’s crops rely on pollinators. Creating bee gardens helps the planet.

Scientific name: Apis mellifera

Pain Scale: 2.0

Honey bees generally exhibit non-aggressive behavior towards humans, with worker bees primarily focused on collecting food for the hive. While honey bees can live in domestic and residential areas, they prefer habitats such as woodlands, gardens, orchards, meadows, and other flower areas. 

To protect themselves from predators, honey bees construct their nests inside tree cavities or beneath large objects, seeking concealment. In general, honey bees are docile and pose little threat to humans, stinging only when provoked. However, when their colony is disturbed, honey bees can respond aggressively, mobilizing hundreds or even thousands of stinging bees. It is important to note that only female honey bees, known as worker bees, possess stingers. 

A typical honey bee hive consists of around 60,000 worker bees, several hundred male bees, and a single female queen bee. Worker bees function as the colony’s defenders, gathering nectar, pollinating, and protecting the hive.

The honey bee sting typically results in instant, sharp, and burning pain at the site of the sting. Following the sting, a normal reaction involves swelling, redness, and itchiness. However, the severity of the response can vary depending on the individual and the amount of venom introduced into the victim’s immune system. 

After the initial pain subsides, itching and swelling may persist. The pain level also depends on the location of the sting, with areas such as the nostril and upper lip often being the most painful. On the Schmidt Pain Index scale, honey bee stings rank at a level 2.

Bumblebee

A bombus dahlboii on a yellow flower

Bumblebees often nest underground.

Scientific name Bombus

Pain Scale 2.0

A bumblebee is any of the over 200 species in the genus Bombus. Bombus comes from the Latin word “booming.” Bumblebees are the most common species of bees and get their nutrients mostly from nectar. The common bumblebee bee is one of the most social species on planet Earth. They are led by their queen bee and cooperate, raise their young, and divide labor for the colony’s good. 

Unfortunately, due to complex reasons, bumblebees are declining in numbers, and potentially the long-term effects on the rest of the Earth’s ecosystems. Bumblebees are identified as significant and plump, with little hairs all over their body. In addition, the bees sport their iconic black and yellow colors, which warn other animals of potential dangers that threaten the bee. 

Bumblebees, unlike honeybees, can sting multiple times but are much less likely to sting than hornets, yellowjackets, or honeybees. Bumblebees inject venom into their target through their stinger; the most frequent reaction is short-lived but painful. However, various responses may include an allergic reaction to the injected venom. 

Fun Facts about Bees

  1. Bees are incredible pollinators: Bees are known for their essential role in pollinating flowering plants. They transfer pollen from the male parts (anthers) to the female parts (stigma) of flowers, enabling the plants to produce fruits and seeds.
  2. There are over 20,000 known species of bees: Bees come in a wide variety of species, ranging from tiny stingless bees to giant honeybees and bumblebees. Each species has unique characteristics and behaviors.
  3. Bees communicate through dance: Honeybees have a remarkable way of expressing the location of food sources to their fellow hive members. They perform a “waggle dance” in the hive, indicating the direction and distance to the food.
  4. Bees have two stomachs: Bees have a separate stomach specifically for storing nectar, which they collect from flowers. The nectar is later regurgitated and processed into honey by the bees in the hive.

Tips for Preventing Bee Stings:

  1. Instead of swatting flying insects, gently brush them off if they land on you and calmly walk away.
  2. If you spot groups of bees flying together, observe their flight pattern to identify their nest site and avoid it.
  3. Be mindful of floral and sugary perfumes, lotions, and hair products, as these can attract insects. Consider avoiding them when venturing into nature.
  4. Yellow jackets are particularly attracted to sugary sodas and may fly into cans. If drinking from a can, pour the beverage into a clear glass to prevent accidental ingestion.
  5. Keep pet food and garbage cans covered to discourage bees and other insects.

How to Treat a Bee Sting:

  1. Stay calm. Bees sting only once, but wasps or hornets can sting multiple times. Avoid agitating the insect further by maintaining a quiet demeanor and walking away from the area.
  2. Remove the stinger by gently scraping it off or using a piece of gauze. Avoid tweezers, as squeezing the area can release more venom into the skin.
  3. After safely removing the stinger, wash the sting with soap and water. Applying an ice pack can help reduce swelling.
  4. If swelling extends to other body parts, especially the face, and neck, seek immediate medical attention, as it could indicate a severe, life-threatening allergic reaction. Other signs include dizziness, nausea, hives, and difficulty breathing.
  5. Consider using over-the-counter medications such as ibuprofen or seeking at-home remedies to alleviate discomfort.

Easing Bee Sting Pain:

Several homemade remedies can provide relief from bee sting pain. Apply these to the sting area:

  1. Toothpaste
  2. Damp tea bag
  3. Preparation H
  4. Cut the side of an onion
  5. Chewing a piece of plantain to create a poultice
  6. A paste of baking soda and water


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About the Author

My name is Ella Coppola. I graduated from Southern Methodist University with degrees in Journalism and Ethics in Dallas, Texas. I'm a huge animal lover and have two dogs named Charlie and Meatball.

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