Honey-bees are known for their sting, but scientists have now discovered they can also bite. Bees resort to biting when faced with pests, such as parasitic mites, that are too small to sting. Close study of the biting behaviour has revealed that they secrete a chemical in their bite that stuns pests so they are easier to eject from a colony. Tests suggest the chemical could also have a role in human medicine, as a local anaesthetic. Bees were thought to use their mandibles to groom rather than bite The pests that honey-bees bite include varroa mites as well as wax moth larvae. The varroa mite is endemic throughout both feral and cultivated honey-bee colonies. The knock-out effect of the chemical secreted in the honey-bee bite, known as 2-heptanone, was discovered as Dr Papachristoforou and colleagues observed bees dealing with pests. Early tests suggest 2-heptanone may also find a role in humans as a local anaesthetic. It could be an alternative to well established treatments such as lidocaine that can provoke allergenic reactions in some people. The researchers published their results in the journal Plos One.
“The potential implications of this new research for honey-bees and their interactions with varroa mites and wax moth larvae will need to be looked at in more detail, but the initial results look really interesting,” said Giles Budge, senior researcher with the UK’s National Bee Unit. “I think it is amazing that despite all the years of intensive study there are still massive discoveries to be made about fundamental honey-bee physiology such as the ability to paralyse small insects and mites,” he said.
Dr Papachristoforou, said the good news about the research was that bees would not inflict any damage on humans if they bit them. “Humans cannot be bitten by bees,” he said. “They have such small mandibles they can only use them against larvae and mites.”