Scientists have discovered bees not only bite enemies that are too small to sting, but paralyse their victims with a snake-like venom.
The insects use their tiny mandibles to bite animals that are too small to sting, like the wax moth and the parasitic varroa mite.
Like the snake bite, the bite contains a natural anaesthetic to paralyse the victim so the pest can be dragged out of the hive.
The finding, in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS ONE, could help scientists develop ways to help bees fight off viruses that are affecting the wider population.
Dr Alexandros Papachristoforou, of the University of Thessaloniki in Greece, who led the team, said the finding will cause “a complete re-thinking of honeybee defence mechanisms” and could lead to the production of a natural, low toxicity local anaesthetic for humans and animals.
“It is amazing that this second line of honeybee defence has gone undetected for so long. Beekeepers will be very surprised by our discovery and it is likely to cause a radical rethink of some long-held beliefs. It will probably stimulate honeybee research in many new directions,” he said.
Scientsits found 2-heptanone (2-H), a natural compound found in many foods as well as insects, in the bite.
They discovered for the first time that the compound has anaesthetic properties.
“Somewhat like a snake, the honeybee uses its mandibles to bite its enemy and then secretes 2-heptanone into the wound to anaesthetise it. This enables the honeybee to eject the enemy from the hive and is a particularly effective defence against pests, such as wax moth larvae and varroa mites, which are too small to sting,” stated the report.
The team of researchers from Greek and French organisations worked in collaboration with Vita (Europe) Ltd, the UK-based honeybee health specialist.
Dr Max Watkins, Technical Director of Vita (Europe) Ltd said “We are very excited about our findings on at least two levels. Firstly, the revelation that honeybees can bite enemies that they cannot sting confounds some existing ideas and adds significantly to our biological knowledge. Secondly, the discovery of a highly effective natural anaesthetic with huge potential will be of great interest to the pharmaceutical industry eager to develop better local anaesthetics."