America boasts an incredible diversity of bees that contribute greatly to human survival. Beyond pollinating crops for agricultural laborers and farmers, they’re key players in our ecosystem’s preservation. Bees provide a vital labor force without which humanity would be doomed – making them true superheroes! But what are the most common bees?
From the large, colorful honeybees to the smaller solitary bees, over 4,000 species of these buzzing insects inhabit America. Some live in independent colonies, while others reside in social communities containing hundreds of thousands of their kind.
While some are aggressive and dangerous, others are harmless and vital pollinators essential to nature’s fragile balance. From numerous familiar ones to those that may soon be threatened, bees of all species are uniquely captivating.
In this article, we’ll check out the most common bees in the U.S. and rank them by how much their sting hurts, using Justin O. Schmidt’s research.
What Is the Schmidt Sting Pain Index?
The Schmidt sting pain index is a scale rating the relative pain caused by different stings from insects in the order Hymenoptera, such as bees, wasps, and ants. The sting pain index is the work of Justin O. Schmidt, a former entomologist at the Carl Hayden Bee Research Center in Arizona, who published several papers and a book on the subject.
Other scientists and media outlets have widely recognized and cited Schmidt’s work. Additionally, he received awards for his research, including the 2015 Ig Nobel Prize in Physiology and Entomology.
How Does the Index Work?
Schmidt’s pain scale includes four levels, with a rating of 4 being the most painful. Because insects that sting differently might fall into the same level, newer versions of the scale include a brief description of how each insect sting feels.
Schmidt rated some insect stings at pain level 1, like urban digger bees and small bees. The pain of these stings lasts around five minutes or less. However, the most intense pain level is shared by only two species: bullet ants and tarantula hawk wasps.
Schmidt says a bullet ant’s sting is potent and lasts at least 12 hours, sometimes more. It hurts like walking on hot coal with a nail in your heel. The tarantula hawk wasp’s sting is also excruciating but doesn’t last as long.
Giant Bornean Bee (Xylocopa latipes)
The giant Bornean bee, otherwise known as the tropical carpenter bee, is among the largest bees globally, and it looks unique with a black body and yellow marks on the thorax and abdomen. They make their homes by burrowing tunnels and chambers in dead bamboo or wood.
This bee is not hostile to humans or animals, but it can be defensive and safeguard its nest if it feels disturbed or threatened. Its sting has a score of 2.5. Schmidt reported that the pain feels sharp and electrifying and can last for minutes.
Honey Bee (Apis mellifera)
Honey bees are the most well-known and economically important bees in the U.S. They are responsible for pollinating crops and producing honey and wax. They live in large colonies of up to 60,000 workers, a queen, and a few hundred drones. They build their nests in hollow trees, cavities, or man-made hives.
Honey bees are generally docile but attack if they feel threatened or if their hive is disturbed. The sting releases a pheromone (SAP), alerting other bees to join the attack. The SAP comprises more than 40 chemical compounds, making it an intricate mixture. However, the primary constituent, isoamyl acetate (IAA), is potent enough to elicit most of the behavioral reaction.
According to Schmidt, their painful sting is rated as 2. The sensation feels somewhat like a migraine in the tip of your finger.
Bumble Bee (Bombus)
Bumble bees are round, fuzzy bees that exist in different colors and designs. They pollinate many wildflowers and crops, such as tomatoes and peppers. They live in tiny groups with up to 400 workers and construct their homes in the ground, under logs, or in empty burrows left by rodents.
Bumble bees are mostly calm but sting if you provoke or disturb their home. After a Bumble bee sting, which carries a pain rating of 2, you’ll likely experience a localized and non-allergic reaction. It can be confusing and unpredictable. This response is marked by swelling, irritation, and redness at the sting location. Although the onset of symptoms can be immediate, it more commonly occurs after some time. The swelling or itchiness may persist for several hours and sometimes even endure for multiple days. This phenomenon is both bewildering and sporadic.
Carpenter Bee (Xylocopa)
Carpenter bees belong to the tribe euglossine and are part of a single genus Xylocopa in the extensive Apinae family. Their distribution is widespread, with Xylocopa found in temperate and arid regions across all continents except Antarctica. The majority of their species are prevalent in the tropics.
Carpenter bees like plain old wood, especially soft types like cedar, pine, cypress, and redwood. Painted or pressure-treated wood is less appealing to them. They build their nests in different spots like eaves, rafters, boards, siding, roofs, decks, and furniture.
With its stingers full of venom, the carpenter bee inflicts a sudden and intense discomfort on its victim (level 2). It is marked by a sharp sensation and a fiery feeling on the skin where the sting occurred. Unlike other bees, carpenter bees don’t leave their stingers in the skin, so there’s no need for extraction.
Orchid Bee (Euglossa viridissima)
The orchid bee, or green orchid bee, lives on its own. It’s an euglossine bee found in Central America and parts of Florida.
The orchid bee doesn’t produce honey. Instead, this vibrantly hued insect spends its days whizzing about the American rainforests, scouring for unusual orchids that serve as their primary material for concocting fragrances.
Like many other bee species in Florida, female orchid bees have stingers, while males don’t. However, females hesitate to use their stingers despite their ability to sting. Furthermore, their 1.5-rated stings are less painful than those of honey bees. However, unlike honey bees, they can sting multiple times.
Squash Bee (Xenoglossa angustior)
The squash bee is a small insect specializing in pollinating plants in the squash family, such as pumpkins, zucchini, and cucumbers. They are native to North America.
These common bees are similar in size to different types of bumblebees. They possess larger and heavier physiques than honeybees, with round faces and longer antennae. Their leg hairs, which carry pollen, are either unbranched or almost so to accommodate the exceedingly large, rough pollen of the plants they inhabit. These bees don’t live in groups, but they might make burrows together on the ground, with each female making her own.
The sting of a squash bee is very mild and only causes a slight burning sensation that lasts a few minutes. It has a pain score of 1.
White-Faced Bee (Habropoda pallida)
The white-faced bee is solitary and petite and belongs to the Apidae family, a group which encompasses renowned bees like honey bees and bumble bees. The white-faced bee in North and Central America dwells in diverse environments like meadows, woodlands, and gardens.
White-faced bees sting when bothered, but their stings are weak and not very painful, carrying a score of just 1. People stung by these bees typically feel a slight prickling sensation that goes away quickly.
Cactus Bee (Diadasia Rinconis)
The cactus bee is a solitary bee specializing in pollinating cacti, especially prickly pears. These common bees are found in the Southwestern U.S. and Mexico. These bees look like honey bees, with antennae and eyes that are grey-black. Their bodies are small and have hairs for collecting pollen. They have golden brown stripes on their exoskeleton and move with six legs and two transparent wings.
They are found in big groups during spring cactus bloom. Cactus bees eat from cacti flowers, using their hairy bodies to collect pollen. This pollen has all the nutrients they need, from energy to vitamins, and they feed it to their young in their burrows.
They can sting hard but won’t bother you unless they feel scared. These bees are a 1 on the Schmidt index.
Sweat Bee (Lasioglossum)
The sweat bee is a common name for a large group of small bees that belong to the genus Lasioglossum. They’re widespread in the U.S. and Canada. These bees are attracted to the salt found in sweat, hence their name.
Their bodies are black or gray and can have a shiny or metallic appearance. Some might also have light stripes of hair on their abdomen, but they have less hair than other bees. Their body size ranges from very small to small, measuring 3-7mm. Lasioglossum species make nests in the ground, creating waxy material for brood cells. They also use this substance to line the burrow and entrance, which is hard to remove.
Their sting is a 1 and isn’t very potent. It feels like a mosquito nibble or a tickle.
Ericrocidine Cuckoo Bee (Ericrocis Lata)
This type of cuckoo bee is a parasite that doesn’t build its own nest but lays its egg in another bee’s nest. After hatching, its larvae consume the host’s provisions. The female cuckoo bee can eliminate or allow its offspring to eat the host’s eggs.
Cuckoo bees, which may appear similar to wasps due to their hairlessness, don’t need to gather pollen and nectar for their young. As a result, they lack the specialized body hairs for collecting pollen. However, they feed on flower nectar and use the energy to locate and exploit other bees’ nests.
Their sting is minimal, with a score of 1.
Giant Sweat Bee (Dieunomia heteropoda)
Giant sweat bees live in North and Central America. They’re solitary and create nests underground. This species uses these nests for laying eggs and to take care of their young. They belong to the Halictidae family with other species of sweet bees.
Giant sweat bees get pollen from aster family flowers like coneflowers and daisies. Unlike other bees, they’re not considered bothersome pests.
Females can sting, but they’re not hostile. They use their stinger mainly to defend their homes and offspring from enemies. Their sting is gentle and usually not felt, with a low score of just 0.5.
Cuckoo bee (Triepeolus)
Female cuckoo bees lay their eggs in the nests of other bees, such as digger bees and Andrenids, without permission. Cuckoos are also notorious for stealing hard-earned honey and pollen collected by other bees.
Interestingly, cuckoo bees don’t have scopa, the specialized hairs that allow bees to gather pollen and transport it back to their hive with ease.
These sneaky insects can be spotted flying near the ground and plants, searching for unsuspecting bees to prey on. Its sting is also very mild and short-lived, with a rating of 0.5.
How Many Bee Stings Can the Average Human Endure?
It’s hard to say how many bee stings one can endure because it largely depends on the person. If you’re allergic to bee venom, a single sting can cause anaphylactic shock and be fatal. If you’re not allergic, you can potentially withstand hundreds or even thousands of stings without dying from the venom.
For example, one man in Texas survived 1,200 bee stings, while another died from only 98 stings. Neither were allergic to bee venom, but it proves that venom impacts individuals in different ways.
Which Bees Don’t Sting?
Male bees cannot sting because they lack stingers. They’re bigger and slower, which makes them easier to identify. Honeybee males, for example, have eyes on their heads, while females do not, making it easier to recognize them.
What’s the Friendliest Common Bee?
One of the friendliest bees is the bumblebee, a large, fuzzy bee that lives in colonies and pollinates flowers. Bumblebees are not aggressive and will only sting if threatened or provoked.
Surprising Facts about Bee Stings
Here are some surprising facts that may change your perspective on bee stings:
Bees Rarely Sting Without a Valid Reason
Bees rarely act aggressively and will only sting when scared or irritated. They might sting you as a last resort when you bother them. Bees don’t survive after they sting since their stinger gets stuck and rips off, taking a part of their body with it.
Bee Venom Possesses Healing Abilities
Apitherapy employs bee venom for medicinal purposes to alleviate muscle and joint discomfort. It might even have the potential to combat arthritis.
Squeeze a Stinger Spreads Venom
Your muscles continue to twitch after a sting from a venomous bee. Use your fingernail to scrape off the stinger to prevent further spread of venom.
If You Can’t Find a Stinger, It’s Not a Bee Sting
People who receive a painful sting often point the finger at bees but can’t locate a stinger in their flesh. In this case, the culprit is more likely a wasp! Wasp stingers are slick and can be inserted or removed from their bellies as they wish.
Summing Up the Common Bees in the U.S.
According to Schmidt, the U.S. has many common bees with varying sting pain scores. Most have mild stings that won’t cause harm or discomfort. However, bees like the giant Bornean bee, honey bees, and bumblebees can sting hard. Their stings are ranked 2-2.5 on Schmidt’s scale. Therefore, respecting bees and not bothering them or their homes is wise.
The photo featured at the top of this post is © Kuttelvaserova Stuchelova/Shutterstock.com
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