Behold the terrifying bite of a honeybee... wait, bite!?

For humans and most other animals that you don't need a microscope to see, honeybees are notorious for their stings. But there's a whole universe of creatures that are blissfully unaware of bee stings... but are terrified of bee bites.

Honeybees deal with a number of pests in their colonies, and these microscopic parasites are so tiny that stings won't work on them. While the sting is a great weapon to use against foes larger than the honeybee, it's not much use against smaller creatures. In its place, bees will bite the mites and larvae that if left unchecked would sap the health of the worker bees and destroy the integrity of the colony's structures.

Honeybee bites pack one hell of a wallop. Each chomp shoots the bee's prey full of 2-heptanone, a volatile chemical that might one day be useful as a local anesthetic in humans. But for the pests, the chemical is more than enough to stun and incapacitate them, allowing the honeybees an easy opportunity to eject the parasite from the colony.

Biologist Alexandros Papachristoforou of Greece's Aristotle University of Thessaloniki discovered this previously unknown bee behavior while studying mites who had been ejected from honeybee colonies. When the pests started moving again shortly after their removal, he realized the bees had not killed them but had somehow managed to stun them, which led him to uncover the truth. Fellow researcher Giles Budge of the United Kingdom's National Bee Unit explains just how remarkable the discovery is:

"The potential implications of this new research for honey-bees and their interactions with varroa mites and wax moth larvae will need to be looked at in more detail, but the initial results look really interesting. I think it is amazing that despite all the years of intensive study there are still massive discoveries to be made about fundamental honey-bee physiology such as the ability to paralyse small insects and mites.

The good news for us is that bees couldn't bite humans even if they wanted to — their mandibles are only big enough to bite mites, and they would be totally unable to break human skin, much less pump enough 2-heptanone into our bloodstream for us to notice they had done anything. But it's still useful information in case you ever find yourself in a "Planet of the Giants"-type situation: if you're shrunk to the size of a honeybee, don't worry about the stings, but be duly terrified of the bites.

Via BBC News. Image by Cygnus921 on Flickr.