If you’ve been stung by a bee, it’s likely that in that moment, you didn’t care which species it was that caused you pain. But it might interest you to know that of the estimated 20,000 species of bees in the world, only a handful of them will actually sting you.

Of the bees that can sting, it usually requires serious provocation before you’ll find yourself at the business end of a stinger. Most bees prefer to be left alone, and in exchange will not bother you.

Take, for example, one of the most widely recognized bees – the honey bee, Apis mellifera. Honey bees are typically not very aggressive, but are capable of acting out when they feel that their hive is threatened.

Do honey bees sting?

Yes, the worker bees and the queen bee in a honey bee hive are able to sting. Honey bees are social bees, and their hives are organized by a caste system – the queen bee, the drones or male bees and the worker bees. While the queen bee has a smooth stinger, she mostly uses it against rival queen bees. Worker bees have barbed stingers that they use for defending the hive. All worker bees are sterile females. Their stingers are an evolutionary adaptation of the ovipositors that are unused, since they do not lay eggs.

What happens when a honey bee stings?

A honey bee sting is a suicide mission for the worker. Because of the barbs on the stinger, it becomes embedded in whatever they have stung. When the bee pulls away from the victim, the stinger and venom sac are left behind. This is catastrophic for the bee and will cause its death. It is also important to remove the stinger, as the venom sac will continue to pump poison into the victim and the barbs will pull it deeper into the skin.

Why do honey bees sting?

A honey bee stings to protect itself or the hive from a perceived threat. The hive contains the queen bee, the young bees and the stores of honey. Bees are programmed to protect their hive at all costs. A worker honey bee typically only stings if threatened, or if you are near its hive. An exception to this rule is the Africanized worker bee, which is known to be more aggressive. Africanized bees may sting with less provocation than it would take for a regular honey bee to sting.

How can I prevent a honey bee sting?

As with most insects, avoidance is the easiest way to keep them from causing trouble. Honey bees are attracted to sugary, sweet substances. This is especially true when flowers are not readily available. A simple, but effective way to reduce the likelihood of a bee sting is to limit how long sweet foods and drinks are open in an outdoor setting. Covering these foods and drinks, thereby making them inaccessible to the bees, is another way to keep them from drawing near. Paying attention to the location of likely hives and giving them a wide berth are also smart options when looking to avoid a honey bee sting.

If I see bees near me, what do I do?

If you are in an outdoor setting where bees are present, leave them alone. Most often, a honey bee will not sting you unless it perceives you to be a threat. Do not wave your arms at them or try to swat them away. Gently brushing a bee off of yourself is preferable to slapping it away from you.