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Death of a hive, a science story

// February 1st, 2011 // 1 Comment » // Recent Research, Science Communication

Apis bee in honeycomb

Image by By Richard Bartz

It was late afternoon, and Aethina could smell a hive in danger.

Heavy with eggs she felt compelled to investigate. The scent wafted softly though the hot and hazy air, so faint it was barely discernible.

Driven by survival, she flew as fast as she could. Weak as the smell was it was hard to tell which direction to go. Through trial and error she travelled across small hills covered with brown grass, wilting seedlings, and huge angular mounds of dirt.

Finally she reached an ocean of bright yellow flowers heads pointed towards the sun. Interspersed between the identical tall and bristled stems were smaller flowers in purples and whites.

Like islands in the sea, these were safe havens for bees, providing a delicious variety to an otherwise blandly repetitive diet. But Aethina wasn’t hungry for nectar. The hive was close, she could smell it.

As a larva, Aethina had heard stories of her ancestors. Generations upon generations ago they had moved across an ocean too. Their land was dry like this, but filled with foreign flowers. They had travelled, said the stories, inside sweet melons.

Suddenly Aethina could see it, the hive. The smell radiated from it, a beacon of hope and danger.

She alighted and walked through the entrance.

At once the guards sprang upon her. Stinking of bee, they buzzed angrily and tried to push her outside. Her own smell must have set them off. To fend off the aggressive attack, Aethina turtled her head and legs under her hard shell. The guards could find no purchase on her smooth surface, and their suicidal stinging could not penetrate her armor.

With small steps, Aethina sneaked deeper into the hive, avoiding the cracks that riddled the tunnels. Below she could hear the cry of her kin, trapped below. As she watched, hunched under her shell, an apparently very stupid bee dripped honey down the crack, feeding her kind as though they were bee grubs.

One step at a time, slowly, slowly, Aethina forced her way though the tunnels. The attacks continued as she inched her way along, turning this way and that along the chambers.

Suddenly the attacks stopped. Poking out one antennae, and then two, she investigated her surroundings. The bees seemed to be gone, perhaps called on another mission.

There was no time to lose. Silently Aethina laid her eggs as quickly as possible, hiding them near the honey-filled pots that rose like ornamental ponds in mosaic. When they hatched, her larvae would have plenty of food nearby. It would be enough for them to molt into adulthood and find their own hives.

Unless removed by the bees, her children had a good chance of surviving. Eating, growing fat on sweet sugar and proteins, they would gradually destroy the hive. No place lasted long after becoming a Small Hive Beetle Nursery. It was only fair. After all, bees had killed her mother, and would kill her in a heartbeat.

Bees were nasty insects, particularly in this melon-founded land. There were other species of bees, natives with a barbaric tendency to catch her kind and mummify them alive. Armed with balls of sticky resin during the day, they created a lacy resin curtain every night that was impossible to get through. The old saying came back to her “Always lay near Apis, never Austroplebeia.”

For good measure, she dusted spores from her six legs. Yeast. It would consume the honey to produce more of the attractive alarm scent that guided her to the hive. Soon there would be even more beetles, and as the larva fed, the yeast would eventual turning the hive from it’s well-ordered structure into a slimy mess. It would seal the fate of this hive.

Served the bitches right, thought Aethina viciously, as she crawled into a crack to take advantage of idiot-bee hospitality.

This story is based on scientific fact. Since their accidental introduction in 2002, African Small Hive Beetles (Aethina tumida) have been decimating Australian hives of honey bees (Apis mellifera). Their larva consume the hives, while the yeast they bring in converts hives to slime. But the native bee (Austroplebeia australis) destroy the beetles with resin balls and build resin curtains.

Further reading
Stingless bees entomb beetle invaders by Anne Dolin at Aussie Bee.
Beetle and yeast team up against bees by Not Exactly Rocket Science.
Ellis, J., Hepburn, H., Ellis, A., & Elzen, P. (2003). Social encapsulation of the small hive beetle ( Aethina tumida Murray) by European honeybees ( Apis mellifera L.) Insectes Sociaux, 50 (3), 286-291 DOI: 10.1007/s00040-003-0671-7






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