What beekeeper hasn’t felt the sharp pinch of a honey bee bite? We expect stings, so when we feel that odd twinge, we think, “What the heck was that?”
Biting comes naturally to honey bees. In fact, many types of bees have powerful mandibles, often large and scary looking. The leafcutting and petalcutting bees, for example, have enormous mandibles they use for many types of building and masonry projects. Some even carry mudballs and small pebbles in their “teeth.”
A honey bee first uses its mandibles to remove the capping of its natal cell so it can emerge. Later, they use them to shift objects within the nest, remove dead bees from the hive, tear apart dead animals, and attack other insects. The workers even use those all-purpose jaws to attack their brothers and, yes, even their keepers.
More than just mandibles
Like other related insects, such as ants, bees have glands that can secrete chemicals into a bite. Some such chemicals are painful; others are useful for subduing or killing an enemy.
In a paper published 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 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,” examined the properties and role of 2-Heptanone within the honey bee colony.
The original theory was that 2-Heptanone was used as an alarm pheromone to alert other colony members of danger. But a series of experiments showed that the chemical triggered no defensive response in the colony. However, further investigation of the properties of 2-Heptanone suggests 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 inject 2-Heptanone. The chemical paralyzes the larva for a few minutes—long enough for the workers to remove it 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 caused by 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.
Humans get a nick but no jab
Because humans have thick skin, the bite of a honey bee is surface-y. It’s just a pinch that occurs as the mandibles are squeezed together. Even if 2-Heptanone is secreted in the area, the skin is not pierced and we are not affected. Mostly, we’re just surprised.
Honey Bee Suite