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.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

Comments

Jim Davis
Reply

Often, when reading about honeybees accepting a new queen in a cage, you read about looking to see if the worker bees around the cage are attempting to bite through the screen, an indication the queen is not being accepted. Though I’ve never seen this behavior, I assumed from this that bees are, indeed, capable of biting with mouth parts. Very interesting about the suggestion that the hygienic behavior may include biting and 2-Heptanone. Thanks for the info.

Jim

Tom
Reply

Very interesting. I’ve heard people say they’ve been “bitten” by a honey bee. I always think to myself, “Honey bees don’t bite.” I realize they don’t bite humans, but this shows that they do indeed bite, so I guess I was wrong after all.

Rusty
Reply

Tom,

Guilty as charged! I’m one of those people who sometimes says, “She bit me!” meaning she stung me. Don’t know why. Now that I know they bite, I will have to be careful about what I say.

David Bennett
Reply

Great article.

About wax moth larvae, what would they do if not bitten and carted out of the hive?

Rusty
Reply

David,

Wax moth larvae destroy wax combs by burrowing through them in search of empty cocoons, bee parts, and pollen—all of which they use for food. They spin webs which soon cover the combs and protect the larvae from the bees. A bad infestation may leave nothing but a webby, sticky debris pile.

Ken
Reply

I have to laugh. My 17-yr-old son who has partnered with me in our beekeeping adventure suddenly made the bold assertion just yesterday that honey bees bite. I looked incredulously at him and told him that he had better do his research. So he tells me today, “Told you bees bite” (referring to your post). He always looks at things from a different perspective. That is good and often I find out that he is right, as soon as I find out which direction he is headed. Thanks for sending me in the right direction.

-Willow Creek Honey Producers-

Rusty
Reply

Ken,

Up until a few days ago I would have told him the same thing! But yes, a different way of viewing the world leads to lots of discovery and creativity.

Nancy
Reply

OK, I can’t resist: old story about city children seeing a farm for the first time and being cautioned to be careful around animals because some bite or kick.

Grownups are sitting and chatting when a child comes running up yelling, “Mommy, Mommy! A bee bit me!”

Mom consoles, but explains, “Bees don’t ‘bite,’ dear.”

Child, “Well, he sure kicked hard!”

Rusty
Reply

Great story!

Anita
Reply

I was actually bitten by a honey bee this year. I was really surprised when it happened. It felt like a pinch but much better than a sting by far!

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