We all know that bees do the most amazing things. They set up intricate societies. They wage war on other bee colonies. They clear their beehives of debris and dead bee bodies.
But perhaps one of their most famous talents is the ability to communicate with other bees by means of a ‘wiggle dance’ by which they tell fellow bees via sign language where, for example, the good flowers are located.
Well, according to a recent article in the wonderfully named website, TreeHugger.com, it turns out that bees don’t only communicate with other bees. They can use body language to ward off enemies, like bee-eating hornets.
New research that suggests honeybees also send ‘sign language’ signals to predators, warning would-be raiding hornets that they have been spotted and they’d better back off. And the best thing is the fact that these signals actually work!
The researchers described how the bees shook their abdomens when a hornet approached, a signal that triggered the hornet to retreat.
Researchers already knew of this “characteristic shaking signal”, in which all the guards bees simultaneously vibrate their abdomens from side-to-side for a few seconds when a hornet approaches the colony. In the wild, this produces a spectacular “Mexican wave” of vibrating bees.
This study, carried out on a small bee hive, revealed the hornets (Vespa velutina) responded directly to the bees’ shaking signal. Warned wasps would retreat from the colony and try to catch bees in flight instead. To find this out, the researchers tethered live hornets to lengths of wire and held them at a variety of distances from the hive entrance. The closer the tethered hornet was held to the hive, the more intensely the bee guards shook their bodies. To confirm that the bees were specifically “talking to” the hornets with this signal, the team carried out the same tethering experiment with a harmless butterfly species (Papilio xuthus).
And what would happen if a foolhardy hornet decided to forgo the warning and try to make it into the hive?
“If a hornet lands at the hive entrance,” say the researchers, “it is pounced on by the guards, which then form a dense ball of up to 500 bees around the hornet.”
This kills the hornet with a combination of heat and suffocation. A pretty grizzly end, for sure.
So take heed, hornets, and think twice before you start up with the honeybees.
That extended finger may be the last thing you see!