Do Honeybees Bite?

By Ol’ Drone

A frequently asked question at any honeybee exhibit and demonstration is “do the bees ever bite you, mister?” I’ve always enjoyed joking with the visitor by telling him—“no they don’t bite but bees use the other end and can sting you!” Now we have the truth!

Recently released by research scientists from Greece and France, is a study published in the professional journal “PLOS ONE.” titled “Secrets of the honeybee bite.” This previously unknown defense weapon is used by the bees to protect their hive from some predators but also has far reaching potential benefits in other scientific fields including human health.

Researchers were surprised to find that the sharp mandibles (mouth parts) transfer to the bite a natural anesthetic immobilizing the victim while it can be disposed. The bees use this technique to bite and eliminate pests too small to sting such as wax moths, larva, and Varroa mites. The discovery of this highly effective natural anesthetic, with huge potential, will be of great interest to the pharmaceutical industry eager to develop better local anesthetics.

The compound used by the bees is a recognized, FDA-approved, food additive known as 2-heptanone. This compound is also naturally found in bread and beer (enough beer can have an anesthetizing effect by itself!). The mode of action by this compound is similar to the action of Lidocaine, commonly used in humans and other mammals.

Beekeepers have long searched for methods to control parasitic Varroa mites and other pests. Good results have been found by breeding “grooming behavior” traits in strains of bees. This grooming behavior includes biting of pests and now the anesthetized nature of the bite enhances further behavior studies.

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