Bees are definitely my favourite insects. I almost took a course on apiculture at school, before realizing it was an online course (online courses just don’t work for me). Instead, I bought three books on beekeeping, and then never read them. But I still like bees a lot, not least because they make honey, and honey is damn tasty. I used to be afraid of bees and wasps (when you’re a kid they amount to the same thing), but got over that fear when I stepped in a wasp’s nest and got stung five times. Which is an odd way to get over a fear but it worked for me.

Later, I found out there actually was a difference between bees and wasps, and as far as I know, it’s mainly this: bees die when they sting you, and wasps don’t. So you have to really get up in a bee’s grill to make it sting you. Think of how angry you’d have to make something before it decided it was worth committing suicide just to hurt you.

Photo by me, of a TV playing The Swarm

That’s what happened after some kids threw Molotov cocktails at a bees nest, by the way. All those little specks are bees, clearly being shot out of a bee hose. It’s from the movie the Swarm, which is a must-see, if you’re into seventies crappy horror movies. And even if you’re not, it’s worth a laugh. A few quick facts from the Swarm: a) Michael Caine stars in it. b) Apparently anything mechanical bees touch blows up. This includes: helicopters, trains, ambulances and nuclear power plants. And c) according to the army the only way to kill a swarm of bees is to burn Houston to the ground. Seriously (it doesn’t work by the way – the bees just kill everyone until Michael Caine saves the day). An actual cool fact from the movie: they used real bees to film it. None of this CGI bullshit. What they did for the movie was put the bees in a giant refrigerator, which stuns the bees, but doesn’t kill them. Then they individually removed the stinger from each bee (an estimated 800,000 of them), to make them safe for the actors. Anyway, sorry about the tangent. I know these posts are supposed to be about the animals, but the Swarm is truly a work of art, and one of my favourite all-time movies.

Back to bees! Bees are fascinating animals. They are in the order Hymenoptera, which includes ants and wasps. They are known for their communal living, or eusociality. One very interesting and well-studied feature of bees (particularly honey bees) is their method of communication. They use what’s called the waggle dance. Basically the bees walk around in specific patterns to show other bees the direction and distance to nearby nectar. I don’t really have space to go into the particularities of the waggle dance (I know, I spent too much time on the Swarm), but look it up if you’re interested, it’s really neat.

So back to the Asiatic honey bee. Why that bee, you might ask. All I’ve talked about so far is bees in general, and was basically filler. The main point of this post is this: Asiatic honey bees have an amazing defence mechanism when it comes to invasions by the Japanese giant hornet (which is the biggest hornet in the world, it grows up to two inches long, with a three inch wingspan). The hornet preys on smaller insects, often raiding bee’s nests to get honey for their young. So the bees have come up with a unique defence strategy. The original title of this post was ‘bees that heat up shit to kill it’, which is exactly what the bees do. The hornets die at any temperature of 47 celsius or higher, while the bee’s lethal range is between 48 and 50 degrees. So the bees swarm around the hornet, forming a tightly packed ball. Then they vibrate their flying muscles to raise the temperature around the hornet to 47 degrees, killing the hornet. It looks like this:

Image by Takahashi, CC BY-SA 2.1 JP, via Wikimedia Commons

So that’s why the Asiatic honey bee is so interesting. It just blows my mind that the bees do this. To use such a method of defence takes immense coordination, one that I doubt many species could manage. In fact, humans have tried importing the European honey bee to Japan (the European bee has much higher honey production), but it was devastated by hornets, because it lacks this defence mechanism. In conclusion, bees are cool. The Asiatic honey bee is way, way cooler. Anyway, now I have to go watch The Swarm.

Cover image by Peterwchen, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons