A Game of Hives: Two Australian Bee Species Battle For Months Over Territory
by Lisa Winter
An international team of ecologists have discovered evidence of a massive Game of Thrones-style war between two species of stingless bees in Brisbane, Australia. These bees battled to the death for months on end, all over possession of a honey-filled hive, in a massacre that would make George R. R. Martin proud. Paul Cunningham of Queensland University of Technology is lead author of the paper published in the journal The American Naturalist.
Tetragonula carbonaria is a species of stingless bee native to Australia. They are commonly regarded as sugarbag bees because of the honey they produce in their hives. While this honey is desired by humans for consumption, it also makes the bees a target for invasion by other colonies who seek to control the vast stores of food. Thousands of raiders will descend upon the hive, ready to fight to the death, usurping the home colony and taking control of the territory. It was initially assumed that these wars would occur between different colonies of the same species, but Cunningham’s team found that this was not the case.
“The defending colony was, as we expected, Tetragonula carbonaria, but the attacking colony turned out to be a related species originating from further north, called Tetragonula hockingsi,” co-author James Hereward said in a press release.
A swarm of hockingsi worker bees blitzed the carbonaria hive, pulling out bees and mercilessly killing them. The ultimate goal of the hockingsi bees was to get their own queen in there, therefore taking control of the hive and its honey. Though carbonaria and hockingsi are both stingless species, they are incredibly formidable fighters due to their strong jaws and unceasing commitment. When opposing bees latch onto one another to fight, they never let go.
“Neither the attacker nor defender survives in these one-on-one death battles, during which a carpet of dead and dying bees can be seen on the ground. It is a sheer numbers game as to who wins,” Cunningham added. “It took three consecutive attacks over several weeks before the hockingsi bees won out. When they eventually broke through the defenses, they smothered the hive in a huge swarm, mercilessly ejecting the resident workers, drones and young queens. It was carnage!”
Months after the fighting ceased and the bees had settled, the team performed genetic analysis of the bees currently living in the hive. It confirmed that the hockingsi colony had successfully overthrown the carbonaria bees. The current queen of the hive was a hockingsi, a daughter of the queen whose army led the attack.
This melee was not an isolated incident. The team studied 250 hives over the course of five years, finding evidence of 46 separate bee slaughters, though the outcomes were not always predictable.
“And the hockingsi bees are not always the winners,” Cunningham concluded. “We still have many questions to answer, such as what instigates the attacks, and whether the young in the usurped hive are spared and reared as slaves, or killed outright.”