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What is Bee-Hawking?

Karyn Maier
Updated May 21, 2024
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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.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is bee-hawking?

Bee-hawking is a predatory behavior exhibited by certain bird species, such as the European Bee-eater, where they catch and feed on bees and other flying insects. These birds have evolved specialized hunting techniques and digestive systems to neutralize the stings and toxins of their prey, ensuring a nutritious meal without harm.

How do birds protect themselves from bee stings while bee-hawking?

Birds that engage in bee-hawking have developed various strategies to avoid stings. They typically catch bees in mid-air using their beaks, then they will repeatedly strike the bee against a hard surface to subdue it and remove the stinger before consumption. Their feathers also provide some protection against stings during the hunting process.

Which bird species are known for bee-hawking?

Several bird species are adept at bee-hawking, with the European Bee-eater being the most iconic. Others include the Rainbow Bee-eater, the Black Bee-eater, and the Merops apiaster. These species are often brightly colored and have keen eyesight to spot their fast-moving insect prey.

Is bee-hawking harmful to bee populations?

Bee-hawking can impact local bee populations, especially if the hunting birds are numerous and the bee population is already under stress from other factors like habitat loss or pesticides. However, healthy ecosystems typically maintain a balance, with predators like bee-eaters controlling but not decimating bee populations.

What adaptations do bee-hawking birds have for their diet?

Bee-hawking birds have evolved several adaptations for their insectivorous diet. They possess sharp, pointed beaks to deftly catch insects and strong digestive systems that can break down exoskeletons. Some species have a special section in their stomach to store indigestible parts, which are later regurgitated as pellets.

Can bee-hawking behavior be observed in any other animals?

While bee-hawking is most commonly associated with certain bird species, other animals also exhibit similar behaviors. Some species of dragonflies, hornets, and even primates have been observed catching and eating bees. Each has its own method of dealing with the defensive mechanisms of bees to exploit this food source.

AllThingsNature is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Karyn Maier
By Karyn Maier , Writer
Contributing articles to AllThingsNature is just one of Karyn Maier's many professional pursuits. Based in New York's Catskill Mountain region, Karyn is also a magazine writer, columnist, and author of four books. She specializes in topics related to green living and botanical medicine, drawing from her extensive knowledge to create informative and engaging content for readers.

Discussion Comments

By dega2010 — On May 09, 2011

@anon30072- Bee pollen is actually flower pollen that bees collect for food and then bring back to their hives. Bee pollen is considered one of nature’s most powerful and unique foods. It contains very high quality nutrients that help to promote and maintain good health. It is used for many things such as to enhance memory, performance, and energy levels. It has also been used to prevent the onset of hay fever.

The makeup, nutritionally speaking, of bee pollen is fascinating. There are a wide range of nutrients found in bee pollen including enzymes, fatty acids, amino acids, polyphenols, vitamin complexes, and many other phytonutrients that have not yet been identified. These ingredients make bee pollen an ideal dietary supplement.

By anon30072 — On Apr 13, 2009

What is bee pollen?

Karyn Maier

Karyn Maier


Contributing articles to AllThingsNature is just one of Karyn Maier's many professional pursuits. Based in New York's...
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