It’s tempting to think that bees, wasps, and hornets are genetically related, but they are not members of one big happy family at all. They each possess similar characteristics, such as having stingers and colonizing in hives. However, that’s where the similarities end. Wasps and hornets belong to the Vespidae family, while bees are members of the Apoidea family. Furthermore, wasps and hornets are the quintessential enemies of the bee.
Another basic difference between these three insects is the ability to produce honey, a talent belonging exclusively to the bee. In addition, not all wasps, bees and hornets construct and live in typical beehives. In fact, sometimes these creatures build nesting sites underground, or even nest in the open. That’s the case with the giant honeybee of East Asia, which makes them particularly vulnerable to an assault tactic exercised by wasps and hornets known as bee-hawking. However, giant honeybees have developed a peculiar and highly effective defense strategy against this form of attack.
Although Apis dorsata and A. laboriosa honeybees are indeed large, they are often dwarfed by wasps and hornets of the region and vulnerable to their biting jaws. Usually wasps and hornets will simply invade the hive and take off with a few grubs. However, they will sometimes swoop in and carry off a worker honeybee if one is easily available on the surface of the swarming nest. This technique is known as bee-hawking.
In response to a bee-hawking incident, the giant honeybees engage in a dance called shimmering that has been described as being akin to a Mexican wave. First, a few worker honeybees will tilt their abdomens in the air and begin to vibrate. Surrounding bees quickly assimilate the motion and, within seconds, the entire surface of the nest is shimmering. Apparently, this defense confuses the invaders and the attack immediately ceases. Shimmering is not only effective against bee-hawking from wasps and hornets, but works equally well against invasions from birds and mammals.
Researchers are still unclear exactly how shimmering prevents bee-hawking from taking place. It may be that a swarm of bees vibrating in unison impairs the ability to locate a solitary worker bee on the nest surface. Perhaps bee-hawking becomes too difficult due to a higher probability of a counterattack once the entire nest has been alerted to the attack. Researchers have witnessed cases when wasps and hornets simply turn away from the nest once shimmering has begun.
While giant honeybees do have other defense strategies against bee-hawking, shimmering seems to produce the best results. For one thing, it takes less energy and risk to shimmer than it does to counterattack. In addition, shimmering worker bees release a pheromone called nasonov, which sends a message to the other bees to stick together. The message also extends to guard bees to prevent them from breaking rank and leaving the nest in pursuit of the enemy.