Aside from secreting honey and being industrious insects, another trait that makes bees popular is their sense of smell. They use this for communication, to sense things, and find food. This enhanced sense of smell makes human beings curious about bees. Can bees smell fear? Why do bees attack people who are afraid of them? What do bees do when they sense fear? This article answers these questions, serving up all you need to know about how bees use their olfactory sense.
Bees, amidst other insects, stand out for their keen sense of smell. Bees use this sense of smell for communication and to find survival food. They use smell to detect predators and threats to the beehive. They do this by differentiating pheromones and determining which one indicates a threat, hunger, or aggression towards their hive.
Due to bees’ evolved sense of smell, people believe they sense or detect fear. Even right from childhood, people around you might have mentioned that bees can smell fear.
But can bees smell fear? The short answer to this is no.
Bees can’t really smell fear. What bees smell is the release of pheromones that takes place when an animal or human is feeling fearful. Bees interpret the smell of these pheromones as a threat. Then, they react accordingly to the pheromones and also signal to other bees within range.
Bees don’t smell fear. However, they detect fear pheromones released when an animal or human is afraid. Essentially, their olfactory system enables them to collect scents and establish their meaning. So, even though they don’t smell fear directly, they have a keen sense of smell for perceived threats.
Related: Read up on our compilation of fascinating bee facts for more information on the world of bees.
Creatures and human beings produce pheromones when scared1. In humans, the mouth's palate detects the smell molecules from pheromones and transfers them to the limbic system. This is the part of the brain that deals with emotional responses.
Generally, the fear pheromones that creatures produce can only be detected by the same species. However, bees are an exception to this rule. Bees can detect pheromones of other species.
Since bees communicate using smell signals, the other bees quickly get notified through the smell. In a short while, the entire hive gets to know of the smell. They use this pheromone detection to protect themselves against predators in advance. Bees can either become defensive or aggressive when they detect a strange pheromone.
A hive is a busy place with thousands of bees confined in one place. A single colony of bees can consist of over 10,000 bees. There are many roles within the colony ranging from the queen bee to worker bees, such as cleaners, nurses, builders, guards, and so on. With this kind of population and roles, there is a need for efficient means of communication.
Bees don’t only communicate with chemical signaling or pheromones. They also communicate using physical behavior. Physical actions allow communication within small groups of bees.
Pheromones enable communication among bees broadly and even quickly. They use smells effectively for wide ranges and allow swift communication, especially when they detect threats. Communication among bees can be classified into two, they are :
Humans adopt body language to communicate either simultaneously with words, body language, or signs alone. Bees also are experts in using body language to communicate. Furthermore, they are experts at interpretive dances.
In simple terms, physical behavior is the body movement that small groups of bees use for communication. The duration of the movement and its direction, even with the vibration of the bee's body during the movement contribute a lot to the message. Bees have three main types of dance they use to communicate.
A bee researcher, Karl Von Frisch, discovered this dance in the 1940s from an experiment. Here, the bee dances in a figure eight with the angle of the figure eight suggesting the direction of the food source in relation to the sun.
The speed of the waggle of the bee's abdomen waggle during the dance indicates the distance to the food source. The amazing thing about this is that the dance performance is usually in a dark environment.
The round dance communicates the location of food sources within a close range. The range of the location should be around 100 meters (338fts) to the hive. Waggle dance takes care of any food source location farther than this. It doesn't show directions.
The essence of this dance is a call to action. For this dance, bees in the hive vibrate their bodies, which transmits through the surrounding wax comb. It’s a signal to other bees for the availability of forage for foraging bees.
Some other types of bee dances include the whir dance, massage dance, joy dance, shake dance, and alarm dance.
The other way for a bee to communicate with other bees is through its pheromones. A pheromone is a chemical substance produced and released into the environment by animals. This is especially true for mammals or insects, affecting the behavior or physiology of other species.
Bees have a highly developed sense of smell in their antennae. This allows for the rapid processing of pheromone messages. These pheromones not only instigate physical actions from the bees but also affect the physiology of the bee's body. When a bee stings, it releases an alarm pheromone. Essentially, this alerts other bees in the whole hive, prompting them to join forces to attack. The task of setting off the pheromone alarm rests primarily in the hands of guard bees protecting the hive.
The fear of bees, apiphobia, is common amongst many people. Most people start to move unsteadily, swatting or jerking at the mere sight of bees or even the buzzing sound. At that instant, human beings panic and become fearful.
Related: Check out some of the best bee quotes for more inspiration about the life of bees and what people have to say about our buzzing friends.
When humans or other animals are scared, we release the fear pheromone. Consequently, bees can smell these chemicals our bodies release. Individual bees that detect the fear pheromone communicate quickly to nearby bees about the threat. Bees defend their hive to protect their space. Therefore, they attack people when they feel threatened. As a result, more bees come around to protect their territory.
Although bees are compliant creatures that only attack when they feel threatened, some different types of bee species are highly aggressive. The Africanized Honeybee, known as Killer Bee, is extremely aggressive and quick to chase people and attack. Research shows that this bee species has been responsible for the death of around 1000 people since its introduction to Brazil. On the other hand, the regular honey bee stings only as a last resort and when it senses a threat to its colony.
Most bees are harmless and will only attack if they’re feeling threatened. This omits species like the Africanized honey bee that’s quick to attack. Rather than attacking, bees prefer the threat to leave quietly.
Therefore, the best way to avoid a bee attack is to remain calm and not fidget. A sting is like suicide for bees. Once they sting, they will die as they can’t pull their stinger out without self-amputating. No one wants to be stung by a bee, or at least not again if it occurred previously. The following are ways to avoid bee attacks or bee stings:
Although most people believe that bees can smell fear directly, we’ve explored the true meaning behind their sense of smell. Bees smell chemicals we produce as a result of fear.
Unfortunately for humans, bees perceive these pheromones as a threat making them attack. They can invite more bees to sting the perceived threat through chemical signaling. At the sight of bees, ignore that impulse to swat. Instead, stay calm and follow the steps above. This will help you avoid bee attacks from other bees nearby.
Ackerl, K., Atzmueller, M., & Grammer, K. (2002). The scent of fear. Neuroendocrinology Letters, 23(2), 79-84.
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.