Story at a glance
- Honeybees alert their hives when a giant “murder” hornet is near using antipredator pipes that sound like screaming, new research shows.
- The sound doesn’t come from their mouths, but is produced by the vibrations of their wings.
- Giant “murder” hornets are capable of wiping out entire bee colonies in just a few hours, posing an increasing threat to the honeybee populations of the U.S. and elsewhere.
The sounds of honeybees alerting their hives to an attack from giant “murder” hornets have been documented by researchers for the first time. It sounds “chillingly” familiar, they say.
Getty Images, Martin Ruegner
Giant hornet attacks on honeybee hives are gruesome and swift, with hornets capable of wiping out whole colonies in just a few hours. To protect themselves, some species of honeybees use tactics like “fecal spotting,” or placing the dung of other animals at the entrance to their nest, and “balling,” in which bees kill a hornet by clustering around it.
Now, a study from researchers at Wellesley College claims honeybees can signal to each other when giant hornets are directly outside their hive using sounds that resemble screaming.
The study, published in Royal Society Open Science, found bees make “antipredator pipes” at a frenetic pace that’s harsh and irregular, similar to fearful shrieks. The noise doesn’t come from their voice-boxes (bees have none), but is produced by the vibrations of their wings.
“The pipes share traits in common with a lot of mammalian alarm signals, so as a mammal hearing them, there’s something that is instantly recognizable as communicating danger,” the study’s lead author, Heather Mattila, an associate professor of biological sciences at Wellesley, said in a press release. “It feels like a universal experience.”
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According to Mattila, these vibrations resemble the panic calls primates, birds, and meerkats make when they sense a predator is near.
Giant hornets, mostly found in parts of Asia, have received much media attention in recent years after first being spotted in the U.S. in 2019. With the ability to decapitate honeybees en masse and easily puncture protective beekeeping gear, they’re an increasing threat to the U.S. bee population.
In addition to warning the hive about the arrival of hornets, these signals alert bees to increase their defense actions, according to the research. When bees make antipredator pipes, they raise their abdomens, buzz their wings, run frantically, and reveal their pheromone-producing Nasonov gland, suggesting they take multiple actions to get their hive members’ attention.
Mattila and her colleagues have studied the interactions between giant hornets and Asian honeybees in Vietnam for more than seven years, recording almost 30,000 signals made by bees during hornet attacks. Bees increased hive chatter to levels eight times higher than when there were no hornet threats, according to the research.
Bees are “constantly communicating with each other, in both good times and in bad, but antipredator signal exchange is particularly important during dire moments when rallying workers for colony defense is imperative,” researchers wrote.
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