A honey-making insect known as the Asian hive bee, Apis cerana, has surprised and puzzled scientists. They've learned that it hides a large amount of an oily compound in an unexpected place--its venom sac.
The compound may be an active ingredient in what some scientists think is an alarm pheromone--a substance that signals other bees to attack intruders. But until now, pheromones had never been found in bee venom, according to Justin O. Schmidt. He is with the Agricultural Research Service in Tucson, Arizona.
"Other bees," says Schmidt, "apparently store pheromones in spongelike tissue at the base of the stinger."
Schmidt collaborated with researchers from England and Brazil in analyzing more than 300 Asian hive bees from Hong Kong, Malaysia, the Philippines, India, and Japan. They found that A. cerana has "50 to 100 times more of the pheromone component than other bees," Schmidt says.
The compound is (Z)-11-eicosen-1-ol, or eicosenol, for short. Scientists have known since 1982 that bees make eicosenol. But why does A. cerana make so much of itand store it in the venom sac?
"It may be a tagging chemical to mark a potential intruder to the hive and alert hivemates," says Schmidt. "Or this bee may use eicosenol to mark patches of flowers rich in nectar so other bees from the hive can locate them quickly and easily. These are our best guesses."
Schmidt wants to not only pinpoint eicosenol's value to this bee, but also find out if the chemical may have other uses. "We're hoping further research will reveal ways to use it to help European honey bees fend off harmful mites, for instance," he says.
In the United States, the European honey bee, Apis mellifera, is a key pollinator of crops and a source of honey and beeswax.By Marcia Wood, Agricultural Research Service Information Staff.
" Venom Chemical Lures Bee Researchers" was published in the November 1998 issue of Agricultural Research magazine. Click here to see this issue's table of contents.