sweat bee

WaterLine photo by Capt. Josh Olive

A male sweat bee (Agapostemon splendens) resting on a leaf in a Port Charlotte yard. Only the male has black-and-yellow striping; the female is all green. Despite his bold coloration, he has no stinger.

What do you do when a bee comes after you? Most people take evasive action, often in the form of a crazy dance. There’s running, leaping, ducking, wild gyrations — all sorts of moves that even Jagger would have a hard time trying to imitate.

With their bodies so busily engaged in avoidance maneuvers, they don’t really have time to turn their brains on. But if they did, they might come up with this question: Why is there a bee after me? The answers to that basic query could be really useful the next time they find themselves in such a situation.

Now, I know that to most people, a bee is a bee. But if you spend a little time looking at them, you’ll soon realize that we have all sorts of bees around here. Just like different people have different reasons for the things they do, so do different bees.

So, what motivates a bee to give chase to something that is so much larger than itself? (A 150-pound person is about 600,000 times larger than an average 110-milligram honeybee.) Bees do not generally attack for no reason. Yellow jackets, maybe, but not bees. In the case of social bees, the reason is often defense of the colony.

Much like paper wasps I wrote about back in April, bees of this type can be very aggressive as they defend their nest from a perceived threat. If you are that threat, your best option is to beat feet, and quickly. For most of us, a few bee stings are merely painful. But 50 or 100 (or more) can become a medical emergency even for those who aren’t allergic.

However, most of our local bees aren’t social. And the ones that are probably won’t intentionally charge at you unless you’re near a swarm or the nest itself. Even so-called “Africanized” honeybees — the “killer bees” they warned you about in the ‘70s (see “The Savage Bees,” a 1976 flick in which Mardi Gras is disrupted by a swarm of killer bees) — are generally quite docile toward humans while foraging.

The majority of bee “attacks” are just bees flying around. Bee predators are mostly much smaller than us — things like spiders, praying mantises and songbirds. Since we’re probably not going to eat them, they do what more of us humans should learn to do: They mind their own business and ignore us.

It’s a hard lesson for some people to learn, but the world doesn’t revolve around you. Bees have work to do, what with collecting nectar for food and pollen to feed their kids, and digging holes in the ground or gnawing into rotting wood to make safe places for their galleries (the nests that solitary bees create for their larvae).

If you’re standing in the way of where they’re going next, they’ll go around you — but just barely. So a whole lot of that freaked-out slappy dancing that people do is for nothing, since most of the time they really aren’t paying any attention to you in the first place. (Although, if you manage to hit one, you might earn a sting you wouldn’t have otherwise gotten. You’ve heard of “stand your ground” self-defense laws? Yeah, bees have too.)

But occasionally, your paranoid delusions that they’re coming for you might be right. Because to some bees, you’re just a big salty lollipop, and they can’t wait to start licking.

Sweat bees are salt junkies. They’re all about it. If they were people, they’d be the kind that put extra salt on their Fritos. While nectar is satisfyingly sweet and pollen is surprisingly high in protein, there’s not too much sodium in flowers. That means they have to seek alternative salt sources — and your perspiring hide is a great one, if you’d only hold still for a minute.

There are several species of sweat bees in our area, but the ones you’re most likely to see are emerald-green jewels in the genus Agapostemon. They’re a little smaller than honeybees, but not much. Females have entirely metallic green bodies, with yellow legs and brown wings. Males have black-and-yellow bands on their abdomens.

I’ve never actually had a sweat bee use me as its personal saline solution drinking fountain. I don’t know why, especially considering that I spend more time watching wild bees in their habitat than just about anyone else I know. Maybe they can sense the deep-down bitterness and they’re looking for someone sweeter.

But if they want to hang out with you, my advice is that unless you’re seriously allergic to bees, you should let them. They don’t ask for much, and they’re not going to hurt you. What can hurt you is overreacting. The acrobatics alone are likely to cause muscle pulls at a minimum, and maybe more permanent damage. You didn’t even stretch first.

Further, this kind of reaction is the best way to cause the sting you were trying to avoid in the first place. If the bee ends up pinned against your skin, you can bet it’s going to sting you (if it’s a female, that is — the males have no stingers, so they can’t do much to you no matter what you do to them.) And while sweat bee venom is less potent than that of honeybees, it’s still better to not be stung, right? So cool it, let them get their fix, and everybody can “bee” happy.


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