You’re standing near the swimming pool, minding your own business, when it happens: the sharp, burning pain that can only mean a wasp or bee sting. And even as you hop around, swearing in pain, an ominous squadron of newcomers buzzes into view. It seems obvious: In injuring their friend, you have angered the wasp gang. But are they really there to avenge their fallen comrade? 

Not exactly; it’s more about self-defense, as you’ll see in the new video above from the American Chemical Society. Wasps and bees are intensely social animals, which means communication is a top priority. Rather than relying on voices, these insects and many other animals use chemical signals called pheromones to tell their kin what’s up. When a wasp is hurt or killed anywhere near its nest, its body releases an alarm pheromone, which warns the wasps inside the nest of an approaching threat.

Now, you may not have known you were near a wasp nest, and you almost definitely did not intend to attack one, but your intentions don’t really matter. The injury of one wasp triggers aggression in the others. 

Is it possible that the wasps are actually mad at you? That’s a surprisingly complicated question. We know that anyone with a dog or cat will vehemently dispute this, but the idea that any animal at all could have emotions is still relatively controversial among scientists. And when it comes to insects, we know even less. Some experiments have suggested that certain stimuli can cause chemical changes in insects’ brains, which may produce what we think of as feelings. But there’s not a long line of researchers ready to step up and say that bugs can feel a lust for revenge. 

There are things you can do to avoid being stung in the first place. The Mayo Clinic suggests keeping trash cans and food containers covered; avoiding bright, floral-patterned clothing; and keeping an eye out for nests while mowing the lawn. If you are stung, try to stay calm and walk away quickly before the reinforcements arrive.

Header image from YouTube // American Chemical Society