Secrets of the Honey Bee Bite Revealed

Secrets of the Honey Bee Bite Revealed 

A new honey bee defence weapon against varroa and other pests and a potential new natural anaesthetic for humans

An article by Vita (Europe) Ltd Published in Bee Craft December 2012


photo: Claire Waring

Astonishing revelations about the honey bee’s bite

RESEARCHERS HAVE DISCOVERED THAT HONEY BEES CAN BITE AS WELL AS STING and that the bite contains a natural anaesthetic. The anaesthetic may not only help honey bees fend off pests such as wax moth and the parasitic varroa mite, but it also has great potential for use in human medicine.  The surprise findings by a team of researchers from Greek and French organisations in collaboration with Vita (Europe) Ltd, the UK-based honey bee health specialist, will cause a complete re-thinking of honey bee defence mechanisms and could lead to the production of a natural, low toxicity local anaesthetic for humans and animals.

Not a Pheromone 

This natural anaesthetic, discovered and measured at the University of Thessaloniki, is 2-heptanone (2-H), a natural compound found in many foods and also secreted by certain insects, but never before understood to have anaesthetic properties. Independent tests have verified Vita’s findings and the promise of 2-H as a local anaesthetic.

2-H is a naturally occurring substance with a lower toxicity than conventional anaesthetics. Vita has already patented the compound for use as a local anaesthetic and is seeking pharmaceutical partners to develop it further.

Until recently, 2-H was believed to be either a honey bee alarm pheromone that triggers defensive responses, or a chemical marker signalling to other foraging bees that a flower had already been visited. The team’s results contradict these notions. Exposing bees at the hive entrance to the substance did not result in an increase in the number of guards. However, it may act as a signal to intruders that the resident bees can bite and kill them.


The new research clearly shows that 2-H paralyses small insects and mites bitten by bees, for up to nine minutes. The honey bee uses its mandibles to bite its enemy and then secretes 2-H into the wound to anaesthetise it before ejecting it from the hive. This is particularly effective against pests, such as wax moth larvae and varroa mites, which are too small to be stung.  Immediately after a bee had bitten a wax moth larva, the team identified 2-H in the larva’s haemolymph. It wasn’t present in control larvae and could not be detected in larvae that had come round. Interestingly, 2-H is very toxic to bees if it gets into their haemolymph, killing them very quickly.

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 honey bees 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’.

Laboratory Trials

In laboratory neurophysiological trials in Greece, 2-H was found to have a similar mode of action to lidocaine, the main local anaesthetic used in humans and other mammals. 2-H is found naturally in many foods such as beer and white bread and is so safe that it is permitted as a food additive by USA regulatory authorities and offers considerable potential as an alternative to lidocaine. Very recent laboratory research using mammalian cells in the USA has confirmed Vita’s expectations that the anaesthetic could be as effective on humans and mammals as it is on insects and mites.  Biological Implications

Dr Alexandros Papachristoforou, a Vita researcher working under the supervision of Professor G Theophilidis in Greece, said: ‘It is amazing that this second line of honey bee 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 honey bee research in many new directions. For instance, many beekeepers have spoken of the “grooming” behaviour of honey bees in helping to control varroa populations. This grooming behaviour can now be interpreted as biting behaviour.

‘We were investigating wax moth control. When exposed to 2-heptanone, the wax moths appeared to die. However, on closer inspection, we realised that they were merely anaesthetised for a period of one to nine minutes. This was quite unexpected, so we set up a series of rigorous experiments to find out what was really happening and came up with our remarkable discovery’.

Apis cerana, the Eastern honey bee, produces greater amounts of 2-H which could possibly be linked to their ‘control’ of varroa populations but no work has been done on this so far. The substance is also produced by the giant honey bee, Apis dorsata, and stingless bees.


Organisations collaborating with Vita (Europe) Ltd were: the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki in Greece, the French Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), Université Paris-Sud, Cyprus University of Technology and the University of Athens.


This new research reveals that honey bees anaesthetise pests such as varroa when they bite them

photo: National Bee Unit

Further Reference

Further information can be found in the peer-reviewed journal, PLOS ONE: To listen to a discussion about this research, go to

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