Can bees really smell fear?
Source: Getty Images

Can Bees Really Smell Fear?

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Apr. 1 2021, Updated 3:22 p.m. ET

When I was young and ran from a bee, my parents told me that bees were more afraid of me than I was of them. It was a comforting parable, especially since being stung by a bee can be pretty darn painful, and downright dangerous if you happen to be allergic. Like most parental advice, though, it turns out they were only half right. These industrious insects can sense a lot of different things using their amazing sense of smell, but can bees really smell fear

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can bees really smell fear
Source: Getty Images

Can bees smell fear?

If there’s one thing we know for sure about bees, it’s that they have an amazing sense of smell, which they use to communicate, sense things, and find food. According to School of Bees, bees can detect threats to themselves and their beehive using that sense of smell. They do this by differentiating pheromones and determining which ones indicate hunger, malice, or aggression against their hive.

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The truth, at least according to Save the Bees, is that bees don't actually smell "fear." What they smell is a release of pheromones and hormones that takes place when a creature is feeling fearful. The bees don't really interpret that fear as anything more than a threat and so, they react accordingly, letting every other bee know that "something is up."

Basically, bees cannot literally smell fear, but if you are fearful, your body will release certain pheromones, which bees can detect as a threat.

How do bees smell fear?

When we or other animals are afraid, we produce fear pheromones. For us, that detection occurs in the palate of the mouth. From there, it is transferred to our limbic system, which in turn produces the right emotional response. In most cases, these hormones are only detectable by other creatures of the same species. According to School of Bees, bees are the exception to this rule. 

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Bees don’t have a palate or a sense of smell that works like ours. Still, they know what fear “smells” like. They can also transmit that smell to their fellow bees, alerting them to the fear. People often say that fear is contagious and in humans, it sometimes is. In bees, fear is an indication that a nearby creature might be scared enough to do them some harm. Bees are not forward-thinking creatures, but they certainly know what has to happen after that. 

can bees really smell fear
Source: Getty Images
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Why do bees attack people who are afraid of them?

According to Insect Cop, bees attack for one reason and one reason alone: to defend their hive. Those of us who have been stung by bees are keen not to be stung again. Thus, our first impulse when being surprised by a buzzing in our ear is to jerkily swat it away. Then, we might experience a sense of mild panic and might even freak out.

Once we’ve done that, the bees will know they have no choice. They will judge us as a threat to them and their fellow bees. If their fellow bees are very close, then this situation might rapidly escalate into a swarming attack by a battalion of like-minded bees. Now, most bees will only sting once before perishing and many honeybees will give up the chase you get far enough away. 

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Other species, according to Insect Cop, are far less forgiving. The Africanized honeybee, or killer bee, has been known to chase people for up to a quarter-mile. According to the Smithsonian Institute, these dangerous bees are responsible for the deaths of over 1,000 human beings, and victims have been known to receive over 100 stings in one attack. 

can bees really smell fear
Source: Getty Images

How to avoid being stung:

If nothing else, stay calm. My parents were right, in a way: bees are just as afraid of you as you are of them. That’s why they attack in the first place. If you’re feeling threatened, you might be a threat. Therefore, your best bet in any encounter with a bee is to remain calm, appreciate them for what they do for our planet, and always remember, bees can sense your fear. 

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