Smoke has long been the beekeeper’s secret weapon to avoid getting stung. Ancient Egyptian art dating back over 2,500 years ago depicts beekeepers blowing smoke into hives. But despite the age of this practice and human’s enduring fascination with honey bees, we still haven’t figured out exactly why smoke soothes bees.
In research published in August in the Journal of Insect Science, Stephanie Gage, Ph.D., with colleagues at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Carl Hayden Bee Research Center and at BetaTec Hop Products, presents a scientific evaluation of smoke on the honey bee’s defensive behavior. The researchers focused on the “sting extension response” and evaluated the effects of two different types of smoke: burlap, which is commonly used by beekeepers, and spent hop pellets—a recycled material made from hop flowers after they have been used to make beer.
Because a honey bee (Apis mellifera) hive contains valuable treasure—sweet honey and protein packed larvae—bees must mount a coordinated defense to protect the hive from the many predators that would love to plunder it. A small number of worker bees serve as “guard bees” that patrol the entrance to the hive and watch for intruders. If a threat is detected, the guard will raise her abdomen and extend her stinger into the air. This behavior is called the sting extension response, and it releases an alarm pheromone, or a chemical signal, to the rest of the colony, mobilizing other workers to prepare to attack an intruder. If the intruder provokes the bees further, stinging commences.
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