Bee Chemical Surprises ScientistsBy Marcia Wood
November 30, 1998
A bee used throughout Asia to produce honey has surprised and puzzled scientists. They've learned that the bee, Apis cerana, 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. Bees use their alarm pheromone to alert hivemates of threats to the colony, such as an intruder. When bees outside the hive emit the pheromone, bees inside the hive can detect it with their antennae, then use the scent to find their way to the intruder.
Until now, pheromones had never been found in bee venom, according to Agricultural Research Service entomologist Justin O. Schmidt in Tucson, Ariz. ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's lead scientific agency. Other honey bee species studied apparently store their alarm pheromone 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 the fuzzy A. cerana has 50 to 100 times more of the pheromone component than other honey bees examined.
The compound is (Z)-11-eicosen-1-ol, or eicosenol for short. Scientists have known since 1982 that bees make eicosenol but--until the A. cerana study--had not found it in such large quantities or in any honey bee's venom sac.
Schmidt wants not only to pinpoint eicosenol's value to this bee, but also to find out if it could be used to help the leading domesticated honeybee in this country, Apis mellifera. The compound, for example, might help fend off harmful mites that have devastated many A. mellifera colonies.
An article about the research appears in the November issue of the ARS' Agricultural Research magazine. The article is on the World Wide Web at: