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
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.
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.
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.
About wax moth larvae, what would they do if not bitten and carted out of the hive?
Wax moth larvae destroy wax combs by burrowing through them in search of empty cocoons, bee parts, and pollenall 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.
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-
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.
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!”
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!
I inadvertently conducted an experiment to prove bees DO bite. (http://blog.empiricalbeekeeper.com/2015/08/bees-dont-just-sting.html) It took three days before my finger *started* to feel back to normal. And all this time I thought those little ‘paper-cuts’ I was getting was just random carelessness (with hive tool) – it was the girls nipping at me the whole time.
I can honestly tell you from experience bees do bite. We had a new hive brought in, and it was placed in my vegetable garden. And they definitely did not want me in that area. One chased me around for a while and then went down the back of my shirt and bit me multiple times. It was quite an experience.
I’ve been bitten, years apart, by two bees. As I’m allergic to bee stings I’m very grateful they bit me, I’m glad for us all to have a good shot at staying alive. Honestly I’m surprised people working around bees (obviously I keep my distance) didn’t know they bite.
A bee landed on my ring and I thought it would fly off. Instead I watched it as it bit me, not stung, it actually bit me. It hurt but the results are not as bad as a bee sting. I guess I should be grateful. There doesn’t seem to be much on bee bites but I can tell you the bite pain stayed a bit longer then a sting to me and after a day or two itched but definitely way better then when I’ve been stung. Hope this helps someone else.