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Vietnamese Honey Bees Battle Hornets with Smell

Credit: Unsplash

Nature has no shortage of off-putting odors.

The infamous Asian “Murder Hornets” are a consistent danger to worldwide honey bee populations. We’ve seen a few isolated instances in recent years of what they can do to our native honey bees here in the west, and it ain’t pretty. However, over in the hornets’ native territory, where they’re far more prevalent, there are still plenty of honey bees floating around. How have these bees avoided the hornets’ murderous jaws? Apparently, the answer is poop. Don’t ever change, science.

According to a study out of the University of Guelph, Vietnamese honey bees have developed a defense tactic to ward off hornets that has not been exhibited by western honey bees. The strategy involves gathering up large quantities of smelly substances, including, but not limited to, animal feces, soap scum, and dirt soaked with human urine, and placing it around their hive in large clumps. The potent smell of these clumps wards off the predatory gaze of the hornets.

To test this strategy, researchers had two groups of beekeepers maintaining colonies of western honey bees and Vietnamese honey bees during a period of frequent hornet attacks. After a hornet attack, nothing changed on the western bee hives, but the beekeepers of the eastern bee hives started noticing more smelly clumps around the hive, with at least 74% of the colonies showing them. Sure enough, it worked; the hives with the clumps scattered around them showed a demonstrable decrease in hornet attacks.

The researchers have theorized that this is an evolved defense tactic that has only been developed by eastern bees, since they’re the ones who have to live with the hornets normally. The western honey bees have little-to-no experience with murder hornets, and as such are unprepared to deal with them.

“They haven’t had the opportunity to evolve defences,” the study’s lead Heather Mattila said. “It’s like going into a war cold.”