Home > Nature, Science > They’re defending themselves somehow!

They’re defending themselves somehow!

February 3, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

We’ve already established that turtles are my favorite reptile, it might be time to move onto something else. What about my favorite insect? Well, you’re in luck there, my friends, because I just happen to have a favorite insect and it is all sorts of awesome: the bee. Like most kids, I was terrified of bees when I was younger. It didn’t take too many stinging incidents to learn that they could be little bastards and that I was better off steering clear. Now that I’m a little wiser (which is debatable) and a little older (which, sadly, isn’t debatable) I’ve realized that bees are just fascinating to watch.

We’re lucky enough to have a park near our house that has a rather large flower garden in it. Where there’s flowers, there’s bees. So while my wife is oohing and aahing at begonias and whatnot I’ll scope out where the bees are gathering pollen. They’re amazing fun to watch, especially the big ol’ bumblebees. It doesn’t seem like it would be physically possible for them to fly.

It’s believed that flowering plants and bees evolved together. The oldest bee fossil is 100 million years old. I didn’t even know bees could leave fossils. Bees are thought to have evolved from wasps who, along with ants make up the insect order hymenoptera. It doesn’t seem like bees and ants would have much in common, but they both have translucent wings. They have four wings (two front and two back) which are actually extensions of the exoskeleton. To ensure that the front and back wings beat at the same time during flight, the wings can actually hook together. The wings have something like velcro which helps them attach together.

Things get a bit crazier when you look at bee legs. The legs actually have rigid hairs on them used to comb off pollen from their bodies. Along with that are some finer hairs which are used to make pollen baskets so that the bee can carry more. They also have a simple hand so they can hold and manipulate things.

The bee stinger is thought to have evolved from their wasp ancestors. Wasps used to lay their eggs in the bodies of other insects and would use the stinger to inject the eggs. Eventually this ability was lost and the stinger became a venomous appendage. This is why most male bees don’t have stingers. The venom in bee stings actually destroys cells in the body. One of the cells it destroys is called mast cells. When mast cells are destroyed the body releases histamine. If someone is allergic to bee venom, their body will release too much histamine. Histamine is a vasodialtor, which widens the blood vessels making it easier for white blood cells to reach the sting site and neutralize the venom. If too much histamine is released, too many vessels widen and blood pressure drops putting the body into anaphylactic shock. In essence your own body ends up killing you to neutralize venom that won’t do much damage. Luckily, this can be avoided by a quick shot of epinepherine.

Like with ants, there is a wide variety in the types of bees. We’re most familiar with honey and bumble varieties (and, sadly, African “killers”) because they are hive insects and where there’s one, there’s usually a lot more. There are also solitary bees, which can get quite varied. There are plasterer, leafcutter, carpenter, and carder bees. The coolest kind, though are mason bees who use their saliva to glue together pieces of sand and pebbles.

More amazing than how bees are put together is what they can do. Bees don’t have very large brains, obviously, but the neurons that they do have are so densely clumped and interconnected that they are much more intelligent than insects of similar brain capacity. Bees have a unique dance. When one bee finds a good food source, she comes back to the hive to tell the other bees by doing a waggle dance. Based on the speed and direction the bee dances in, the other bees can determine where the food is and the quality of the food.

Probably the coolest thing that bees do is when they defend their hive. If a hornet enters the hive, hundreds of bees will surround the invader and vibrate their bodies together. This creates a large amount of heat which the bees use to kill the hornet. Recently, scientists also discovered that the bees also respire into the ball and slowly suffocate the hornet as well. The way they determined this was by attaching a little sensor to hornets and then purposefully putting them in bee hives. The hornets that didn’t die were in critical condition after ten minutes and died later. I didn’t even realize that hornets could be in critical condition.

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Categories: Nature, Science Tags: , , , ,
  1. February 17, 2010 at 9:08 am

    I saw on TV where people would get stung by bees to help their arthritis. It must be the herstamine, I mean histamine. Also if it is a vasodilater then bee stings would be good for hypertension– people being too tense. Just kidding. It means high blood pressure and vasodilators help with this. Also women, not men, have menstruation. Shouldn’t it be called womenstruation. Maybe someone, someday, will create a hornet critical care unit.

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