Wednesday, 15 May 2013

The bite of the honey bee

Yes - I meant bite, not flight, and honey bee, not bumble bee.  But having misused the name of a famous piece of music for rhetorical purposes, here is a surprising (and interesting) bit of information about the familiar insects that are so important for our crop pollination.

You would think that we know nearly everything that there is to know about bees, but it seems that this is not the case.  Now we discover that bees bite and that the bites have a surprising role in the evolutionary struggle between the bees and their parasites.

This interesting information about bees came to my attention in the newsletter of the British Beekeeper's Association (BBKA).  This is not a journal that I have ever read before, but I happened across a well-written article in the February 2013 edition of the magazine. 

Even though the bite phenomenon had been recognised previously, it was not known that it is used to inject a natural anaesthetic called 2-heptanone (2-H).  When bees bite their enemies the 2-H temporarily paralyses the victim and this gives the colony the chance to eject the creature from the hive.  Bees actively use this method to fight the larvae of moths and the parasite varroa which is often heralded as bringing certain death to colonies of bees.

So it seems that bees do have a natural defence against enemies that are too small to sting.

It has been suggested that 2-H might even have a use as a new natural anaesthetic for humans too. Isn't nature amazing?

The BBKA magazine also gets another plaudit from me.  Unlike the article in the Daily Telegraph, the BBKA takes the trouble to reference the scientific paper on the subject by Dr Alexandros Papachristoforou, of the University of Thessaloniki in Greece.  You can find it on the free online, peer-reviewed, PLOS ONE web site at this link.  It gets technical, as all scientific papers ought to do, but the introduction and many other parts are written very clearly and accessibly.  Everyone would get something from the introduction.

Small note:  In the news in recent weeks, people of Europe, particularly UK, have heard a lot about the banning of various pesticides that are alleged to affect bee colonies.  I say 'alleged' because it seems to be a slightly controversial example of science being misused in a public campaign to obtain signatures to promote the passage of legislation.  Unlike many of the campaigns of organisations of 38 degrees, Avaaz and other such bodies, this one about neo-nicotinoids perhaps demonstrates that good science cannot always be applied through democracy.

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