Watch out! They bite!
Honey bees bite. It’s a fact. In a paper published yesterday in the online journal PLOS ONE, scientists reveal that when an enemy is too small to sting, the resourceful honey bee just chomps down on the critter and gives it a good dose of 2-Heptanone. The purpose of the paper, titled “The Bite of the Honeybee: 2-Heptanone Secreted from Honeybee Mandibles during a Bite Acts as a Local Anaesthetic in Insects and Mammals,” was to examine the properties and role of 2-Heptanone within the honey bee colony.
The original belief was that 2-Heptanone, which is secreted by the honey bee mandibles, may be used as an alarm pheromone to alert other colony members of danger. But a series of experiments showed that no defensive response was triggered in the colony by the presence of the chemical. However, further investigation of the properties of 2-Heptanone showed that it acts similarly to the anesthetic Lidocaine.
The researchers found that, during a strong defensive bite, muscular contractions release the chemical from a reservoir near the mandibles. The bee is able to pierce the cuticle of an enemy, such as a wax moth larva, and introduce the 2-Heptanone. The chemical paralyzes the larva for a few minutes—just long enough for it to be removed from the hive.
In other parasites, like Varroa destructor, the 2-Heptanone causes paralysis and death. The authors think that high levels of hygienic success in some honey bee colonies may be associated with a strong biting response, such that mites are not only groomed away but given a good bite with the deadly 2-Heptanone as well. The findings not only provide new insight into how honey bees protect their colonies but suggest other avenues for tackling the ubiquitous Varroa mite.
I’ve said it before—just when we think we know everything about honey bees, they surprise us one more time.