We know (and fear) animals that bite to protect themselves from potential predators, like some reptiles for example. We are also aware that many insects bite either to feed or defend themselves.
But what about honey bees?
It’s well known that bees sting if they perceive a threat to themselves or their hive. That’s why the queen and the worker (female) bees have a stinger at the base of their abdomen.
But do bees use their mouthparts to bite when they believe they’re in danger?
Let’s find out.
Yes – Bees Bite As Well As Sting!
Yes, bees sting AND bite, using their mandibles to inflict the bite.
Bees will use their bite on small pests that are present, such as wax moth larvae or the varroa mite, reserving their sting for larger insects or creatures they perceive as threatening their hive.
How do we know they bite?
A 2012 study revealed that bees will bite down hard on an intruder too small to be stung, releasing a pheromone called 2-Heptanone.
The purpose of the study was to discover the role of 2-Heptanone in the hive.
Initially, researchers thought the pheromone 2-Heptanone worked as an alarm pheromone, signaling danger to the colony and activating a defensive response.
To test this, they conducted several trials where different strengths of 2-Heptanone were applied to a hive entrance.
Nevertheless, they discovered that applying different pheromone doses didn’t trigger a defensive response from the bees, or showed any real change in their behavior.
Therefore, they concluded the 2-Heptanone must serve a different purpose.
After further research, it was revealed that the pheromone caused temporary paralysis in the wax moth larva, piercing its cuticle and anesthetizing it long enough for it to be removed from the hive.
2-Heptanone was found to have a similar effect on the wax moth larvae as the anesthetic Lidocaine, which causes reversible paralysis.
In other parasites, such as the Varroa mite, 2-Heptanone is effective enough to paralyze and kill.
Bees use this pheromone by biting down hard on the intruder, stimulating the muscles in the mandibles to release the 2-Heptanone stored there.
Bees don’t always release this pheromone when they use their mandibles. Its delivery is controlled.
They use this part of their body for multiple tasks around the hive. So it would be pointless for them to use the 2-Heptanone every time.
Hygiene and Biting
In this same study, researchers found a correlation between the number of dead or damaged mites on the bottom board and effective grooming behavior.
This is because honey bees remove Varroa from each other through grooming and then biting the mites with their mandibles to successfully get rid of them.
Therefore, a colony’s ability to maintain hygienic conditions, especially when it comes to Varroa mite, is facilitated by biting and injecting 2-Heptanon on the parasites, so they get paralyzed and die.
Bees Don’t Die When They Bite – Unlike When They Sting
Bees sting to protect their colony, but they don’t always die as a result. It depends on what they are stinging.
For example, bees die when they sting mammals (such as humans) because the stinger gets caught in their thick skin.
However, when stinging other insects, such as wasps, they don’t always die, even if they sting the target repeatedly.
In contrast, the worker bee’s stinger is made up of three shafts, each of which has barbs, much like a fishhook.
The barbs cause the stinger, venom sack, and part of the bees’ abdomen to remain in the human’s skin, resulting in her death.
Bees don’t die when they bite because they don’t lose part of their anatomy when they do so.
The bee uses her mandibles for many daily tasks in the hive as well as defense. If she died every time after biting or using her mandibles, there would hardly be any bees around!
Do Bees Bite Humans?
No, bees don’t bite humans because a bee bite would be ineffective against such a large intruder.
Biting is reserved for smaller threats to the hive, such as the varroa mite or wax moth larva.
Biting is usually used with other defensive mechanisms, like the ejection of the intruder from the hive.
Together with stinging, bees use biting to defend their hive.
Bees instinctively use the most appropriate method to protect their hive when needed.
Biting is reserved for smaller threats, whereas stinging is used for larger insects and mammals.
The bees work together to defend their home.
Suppose the threat the colony perceives is significant. In that case, more worker bees will work together to respond to the intrusion and use the most appropriate action, such as stinging.
If the threat is smaller, biting could be the most appropriate response.
Bees are fascinating insects, and it seems there is still much to learn about them and their behavior.