Can Bees Call for Help? The Real Answer

Apis mellifera, also known as the western honey bee, is a truly fascinating creature. The behavior of honey bees is quite complex and many interesting questions arise if you observe them closely. Today, we are going to answer one of these questions.

So, can bees call for help? The short answer: technically, yes. When a bee stings someone or something, it also releases a pheromone that sends an “alarm” signal to the other bees. As a result, the bees that sense the presence of the alarm pheromone start behaving defensively.

Read on if you want to learn more about how bees use pheromones to send important messages to each other and how exactly they react when called for help.

Bees Can Call for Help, but How Do They Do It?

Honey bees are definitely among the smartest insects in existence. They use all of their senses to understand their surroundings, including the sense of smell, taste, and touch. Honey bees can discern different colors, shapes, textures, and even feel vibrations.

If we consider how smart and sensitive to their surroundings bees are, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that they also have a sophisticated system of communication. In fact, honey bees can send a large number of very specific messages to each other. Calling for help is one of those messages.

Of course, bees don’t understand the word “help” the way we do. However, they are capable of sending an alarm signal that warns the other bees of the presence of an enemy. As a reaction, bees that sense the alarm pheromone become agitated and start behaving defensively.

Now, even though every individual bee is intelligent, bees don’t really have an individual survival instinct. Rather, they will always try to do what’s best for the whole colony. For this reason, a bee will basically sacrifice itself in order to defend the collective from an enemy. When a bee stings an animal or a human, it dies shortly after because the barbed sting remains lodged in the enemy’s skin. However, at the same time, it releases the alarm pheromone that attracts the other bees to help in defending the hive.

What are Pheromones?

Pheromones are chemical substances that some animals and insects release in order to elicit a specific response from other members of their species. In other words, pheromones are chemicals that bees use in order to send messages to each other. Honey bees communicate in various ways, and communication through pheromones is one of those ways. Not only this, but bees also have one of nature’s most complex pheromonal communication systems. In fact, they have 15 different glands that allow them to produce a large number of different chemical compounds that all send a different message. Using their sense of smell, bees can distinguish between many different odor (pheromonal) cues. The different odor cues all send different signals, and they all mean something in the world of a bee.

One of these pheromones is the alarm pheromone that we are concerned with today.

The Alarm Pheromone

Honey bees will only sting another animal or a human if they feel threatened. Their stings are barbed, so when they sting another mammal, they can’t pull the sting out. As a result, the bee dies. Interestingly, when bees sting another insect, they often survive. While stinging, the bee also releases the alarm pheromone.

Bees release the alarm pheromone from a gland located close to the sting shaft. The odor released from this gland contains more than 40 chemical compounds, the combination of which actually smells like bananas. When they sense this pheromone, other bees are attracted to the location. They receive the message that their hive is in danger and they start behaving more defensively. By defensive, we mean that bees become more agitated and more likely to sting.

Smoke Masks the Smell of Pheromones

The defensive behavior of honey bees can become a problem for the beekeeper when he or she tries to open the hive. This is why bee smokers are often used when working with the hive. Smoke masks the scent of pheromones including the alarm pheromone. Bees that are injured during beekeeping release the alarm pheromone that would cause the whole colony to start behaving aggressively. When smoke is introduced into the hive, bees remain calm.

Other Honey Bee Pheromones

A bee colony consists of individual bees with different roles. Worker bees are the most numerous, but every colony also has a queen bee and male bees called drones. Each of these bees releases specific pheromones into the environment to send different messages to other bees.

The alarm pheromone we talked about that sends a call for help to other bees is only one among many different signals that bees send this way. One of them is the brood recognition pheromone. This pheromone is released by the bees’ offspring, and it lets the bees know there are growing larvae and pupae in the hive.

The male drones, on the other hand, release a compound that attracts other male bees to a specific place. Besides these, there are pheromones that help the nursing bees distinguish between drone larvae and worker bee larvae, pheromones that help bees in orientation, a specific scent that bees leave behind when there walk, and various others.

Finally, the queen bee releases a range of special pheromones. The most important among these are the queen mandibular pheromone and the queen retinue pheromone. The queen mandibular pheromone belongs to the category of primer pheromones. This group of pheromones elicits actual physiological changes in other bees. The queen mandibular pheromone causes the worker bees to stop laying eggs. Worker bees that encounter the queen transmit small amounts of the pheromone throughout the hive. This way, the bees can sense at all times whether they have a healthy queen.

Africanized Honey Bees and Defensive Behavior

The Africanized bee is a species similar to regular honey bees. These bees are basically a hybrid between species from Europe and Africa. A Brazilian biologist, Warwick E. Kerr, combined these species in an effort to create a new species of bees that would bear more honey. Afterward, 26 swarms of this new bee species were accidentally released from quarantine in Brazil. Since then, Africanized bees keep spreading through the North and South America.

Africanized bees have one trait that makes them much more dangerous than Western honey bees. They are much more aggressive. They exhibit extremely defensive behavior around their hives and they react much more strongly to the alarm pheromone. As a result, when an Africanized bee stings a human or an animal, the call for help is much stronger. Africanized bees can chase the object they perceive as a threat to great distances.

Can Bees Call for Help? Final Thoughts

The behavior of bees in a colony is quite complex, but it works perfectly nevertheless. Different bees have different roles and it’s all perfectly organized. This wouldn’t be possible if bees weren’t capable of communicating with each other. Communication through pheromones is what keeps a colony in order.

Using pheromones, bees transmit information about their queen to each other. Pheromones regulate reproductive activity and help bees raise their offspring. As we have seen, they also help bees warn each other about a dangerous threat. As such, the alarm pheromone actually plays a really big role in the life of the bee. The ability of bees to call for help is very important for the survival of the whole colony.

Understanding this “call for help” is very important for beekeeping too, since it’s much harder to work with bees that have been alarmed to the presence of danger. However, if the smell of the alarm pheromone is masked by smoke, the bees don’t sting. In any case, the ability of bees to transmit such clear messages as calling for help leaves me amazed.

Related Questions

How do bees communicate?

Honey bees are so well organized because they have a very well developed system of communication. Bees communicate at least in three different ways, through movement, odor cues, and by exchanging food to share information. Besides the pheromones, movement is a very important factor in the communication system of honey bees. When worker bees return to the hive after gathering nectar they perform a series of movements called the waggle dance. This dance informs the other bees in the hive about the location of a food source, With this dance, bees can communicate the exact distance and direction of the food source.

Can bees smell fear?

No, bees cannot smell fear. However, they do have a sense of smell and they use it to communicate through pheromones or odor cues that bees send to each other. A person that is scared of a bee might perform more sudden movements which make the bee feel threatened. If this happens, the bee will act defensively which might seem like it is fear that attracted it. The alarm pheromone can also attract more bees towards a person that has been stung.

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