When we started studying bees over 20 years ago, almost every question we encountered from curious onlookers was about how often we got stung. There seem to be a lot of misconceptions about bees and their sting. For example, did you know that male bees can't sting? We'll save that discussion for another time, but for now, we'd like to clear the air about the myth that native, solitary bees are stingless.
Its a myth that's taken hold at reputable online sites, too, particularly in reference to Mason Bees (Osmia). Other sites suggest that while native bees can sting, it is equivalent to a mosquito bite. Between the two of us, we haven't been stung all that often, even over the course of 20 years. But we think we have enough of a reference sample to speak to this idea that native bees can't sting, or don't sting very hard.
First: The vast majority of North America's female bees do sting.
Second: Consider that there are nearly 4000 native bees in this country alone, and they range in size from pinhead to cottonball. Trying to characterize something like the painfulness of bee stings into one category across that many bees is like trying to sum up the super powers of all the Avengers in one word.
It is true that some bees, like the small sweat bees in the genus Lasioglossum (Dialictus), have mild stings. Last summer Joe's sons' friend had a small sweat bee on the back of his neck (licking his sweat after a bike ride). When this friend reached up to see what was on his neck he got stung and said "Ouch, what was that?" It is doubtful that this friend has ever said "Ouch" when getting a mosquito bite. (They do itch like a mosquito bite afterwards though.)
We have both been stung by masked bees (Hylaeus). The sting is not painless, but is short lasting and not memorable.
We are stung by mason bees (Osmia) at least once a summer. While their sting is, in our opinion, not quite as painful as a honey bee, it is not mild either.
Olivia was stung four times by the same sweat bee (Halictus) this spring while trying to multitask and feed her three-year old a snack while holding a net full of bees.
Bumble bee stings result in extreme swelling, and can be painful for several days.
Even dead or nearly dead bees can sting! In one instance Joe thought a mason bee was dead and as he handled it between his thumb and index finger, the bee came to and stung him! It was somewhat painful and resulted in some swelling on his finger. Olivia was stung by a completely dead digger bee this spring. Even in death, the sting was painful, and she avoids the abdomen a little more judiciously now.
Third: Native bees (in fact, all bees but honey bees) will only sting if they are squished. In all cases where bees have stung us (even when the bee was dead or nearly so), the sting came because we were man (or woman?) handling them in a net. In general, solitary bees are very reluctant to sting.
So, can mason bees or other native bees sting? The answer is certainly Yes; though you might have to grab one between your fingers to experience it.
Interestingly, there is a family of bees that is quite common in North America that is reportedly not able to sting. The bees in the family Andrenidae have occasionally been called "tickle bees" because apparently their sting is too short and they can't penetrate human skin. Thus, if you grab one in your hand it will buzz and tickle (get it? 'tickle bee'). Neither of us has tested this assertion across all the genera in the family Andrenidae, maybe some of you have. Do you have any experience with tickle bees?
Despite purportedly being stingless, Andrenidae, are not officially "stingless bees." That common name belongs to a group of bees known as Meliponines that are close relatives of the European honey bee. The Meliponine stingless bees (which includes about 500 species) can be found in most tropical and subtropical areas across the globe including Australia, Africa, Southeast Asia, and Central and South America. Like honey bees, stingless bees are social and despite being unable to sting, they defend their hive by biting. Some species can even secrete chemicals from glands near their mouths that can cause blisters.
What experience do you have with the stings of bees other than honey bees? Did it hurt? Tell us about it in a comment or on facebook.