When most people see swarms of bee attacking each other in the air and falling to the ground dead, their first instinct is to run in the opposite direction and consider switching from testosterone supplements to honey. Instead, bee biologists in Brisbane (yes, there will be more alliteration about the annihilation) stayed to watch the fight and discovered a probable cause for the warfare.
The battling bees in question are Tetragonula carbonaria, stingerless sugar bag bees native to Australia. According to a new report in the journal American Naturalist, researchers spent five years studying 46 of these massive bee battles. They were led by Dr. Paul Cunningham from Queensland University of Technology and Dr. James Hereward from the University of Queensland.
Without stingers, the bees resort to locking onto each other with their jaws and a never-say-die attitude. OK, that’s not a smart move. According to Cunningham, these battles were often to the death of both combatants.
Neither the attacker nor defender survives these lethal contests. So in the end, it comes down to a sheer numbers game as to who wins.
The battles can go on for months, with the ground ending up covered with dead and wounded bees. These are not just civil wars amongst hives of Tetragonula carbonaria either. Cunningham observed them attacking the hives of Tetragonula hockingsi, a related species.
When they eventually broke through the defenses, they smothered the hive in a huge swarm, mercilessly ejecting the resident workers, drones and young queens. It was carnage!
Why all this hate between honey makers? For their hives. After the fighting was over, the researchers opened the hives and studied the DNA of the bees inside. They found that among these bees, the winner takes all.
There was a new queen in residence, and she was a daughter of the attacking colony’s queen.
The researchers will continue to study the bees to determine if the survivors of the defeated hive are killed or turned into slaves. They’ll also study ways to better control the bees for use as pollinators and honey producers.
Let’s hope this happens before the bees develop stingers … or worse.