When Hong Kong-based insect enthusiast Nicola Newberry noticed a ball of violently shivering bees near a hive in her garden in Ho Hai recently, she was shocked at the colony’s bizarre
Newberry, who has kept carpenter bees in a hole in her garden wall for twenty years, had never seen the insects act so strangely, so she took out her smartphone to film this curious biological phenomenon.
Through the mass of frantically gyrating bees, she was able to pick out the yellow flesh of a hornet, a fearsome creature that can grow to the size of a thumb here, and which she describes as the bees’ “arch enemy”.
“The biggest challenge us bee keepers all have is the hornet,” says Newberry.
“They’re bad news.”
WATCH: Bees in Hong Kong team up to boil hornets using their own body heat
A quick Google search revealed the following: her bees were boiling to death their aggressor using heat generated from their own bodies.
“This is a very particular behaviour of local bees,” explains bee and wasp expert Christophe Barthelemy, author of A Provisional Guide to The Social Vespids of Hong Kong.
“They’re not like European bees, [which are smaller] and haven’t developed that defence because there is less pressure from hornets [outside of Asia].”
Where Europe is home to only one breed of hornet - the vespa crabro - Hong Kong hosts at least eight species, including one that can decimate bee colonies by infiltrating their hives and looting larvae, serving them up as fodder for their own young.
When Asian bees discover lone hornet scouts, they swarm the intruder and vibrate their flight muscles vigorously, raising temperatures to 47 degrees, a heat they can withstand though it proves lethal to their foe.
No other creature in the animal kingdom has been known to display such behaviour.
The hornet dies after around an hour, according to Japanese researchers whose native honeybees possess the same killing skills of their Hong Kong cousins.
Japanese bees have to fend off an even more fearsome species called the giant Asian hornet, whose freak appearances across Europe have been sending shock waves through native bee colonies.
European bees cannot defend themselves against their new predators as they have not evolved to be able to boil hornets to death, a process which takes eons to develop.
“The recent hornet invasions across Europe could turn into a catastrophe,” said Barthelemy, who believes they are most likely to have arrived owing to human trade.
The Asian hornet invasion comes at a time in which dwindling bee numbers worldwide owing to changing weather patterns and pesticides are alarming biodiversity experts.
“The decline is a real issue. We would feel the crunch if bees disappeared,” said Barthelemy.