Volatile stress response to beak scratches: A sound that could be harmful to humans — and our beehives

Caution: Do not try this at home. According to a new study on bees, an otherwise harmless sound produced by their beaks when hit by their predators produces a “screaming” sound as the stunned…

Volatile stress response to beak scratches: A sound that could be harmful to humans — and our beehives

Caution: Do not try this at home. According to a new study on bees, an otherwise harmless sound produced by their beaks when hit by their predators produces a “screaming” sound as the stunned victim eventually passes out.

The study was published March 8 in the journal PLOS ONE and conducted by researchers at Lund University in Sweden and Cheikh Anta Diop University in Senegal. It centered on two species of bees: the Waring’s bumblebee (Mendaxylum lilaci) and the bee conkbee (Arnoamorvias kratos).

The bumblebee, which is harmless to humans,”devours” the conkbee (Cyprocysta kratos) a toxic insect. Researchers had a way to protect the bees from a potentially lethal blow: a high pitch beak scratch, played at a loud volume, on the bee’s abdomen.

They found that the bees, after a few seconds, reacted to the sound by dropping to the ground and crying. They then passed out.

In one experiment, the scientists even set up a hollow out building with no electrical wire in it to mimic the attacker, which sent the bee plummeting to the ground in a matter of seconds. On the other side of the room, the bees only made their beaks scratch the victim, and they did not cry.

To test the effect of an electrical current, they set up a trap in which a pin inserted into the chest of the bee victim would produce an electrical shock when someone poked at it. Interestingly, the researchers tested two different electric shocks — 1,200 volts and 2,200 volts — and found that only the latter produced a loud beak scratch, or more than three times the “normal” sound frequency.

The effect “must occur because insects can experience the auditory input before they react to it,” the researchers wrote.

Lead author Ted Naeve pointed out in an interview with The Washington Post that humans may be able to use the findings to produce a similar sound to defend themselves. For instance, a person with hearing loss in one ear may not experience a high-pitched grunt, but after a particularly rough week or month of work, he may feel a loud sensation in his left ear that can be used to defend himself.

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