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The specialist international beekeeping organisation

Venom

To defend their nests and honey stores against many potential enemies honeybees have developed elaborate defense mechanisms involving pheromones. The most notable of these is the honeybee's sting. The sting apparatus (and to a lesser extent the mandibular glands) produce alarm pheromones that stimulate the stinging response and arouse other worker bees to sting the intruder.

The main component of the alarm pheromone is iso-pentyl acetate which has a sweet smell rather like banana oil and is stored in a specially evolved 'venom sac' located close to the sting shaft. Honeybees store a maximum of 0.5mg of venom during their lifetime.

Commercially-produced venom is used medicinally for desensitisation of allergic individuals, treating a range of chronic diseases notably the rheumatic diseases and multiple sclerosis and for other forms of apitherapy.

Venom is collected from honeybees using an electrically charged grid with a thin synthetic material (such as taffeta or clear plastic food wrap) stretched over it. The grid sits on an integral glass plate. This apparatus is placed at the bottom of the beehive. When bees alight on it they receive a slight electric shock causing them to sting through the material leaving a deposit of venom smeared on the glass plate. The dried venom is scraped off the plate and the underside of the fabric with a razor blade and then rapidly freeze-dried for storage.

This method allows most of the workers to retain their stings so does not damage the colony greatly, but it does make the bees very irritable and defensive. No smoke can be used when collecting the venom because of the risk of contamination. The venom is also very irritating to the collector who needs to wear a facemask. On average it takes 20 colonies to provide 1 gram of venom.

The major component in venom is the peptide mellitin, which releases histamine from the mast cells and ruptures red blood cells causing pain and swelling. The enzymes phospholipase A2 and hyaluronidase are the components in venom thought to cause allergic reactions. A few people die each year from anaphylactic reactions caused by honeybee stings.


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