The Bees that cook their enemy

Whilst out on game drive at JAWAI you can be sure to see some odd looking structures built precariously on the cliffs of the numerous rocky outcrops. A closer inspection will reveal these to be bees!

Looking high up at the cliffs and you will see numerous bee hives.
Looking high up at the cliffs and you will see numerous bee hives.

There are four species of honey bee in India with this, the Giant Rock Bee being the largest. They build a massive single open comb that can be up to 3 meters wide. These combs sit exposed to the elements, with layers of bees on the outside. The bees choose areas that are near inaccessible ensuring that the comb is protected.

These bees produce a large yield of honey with a single colony able to produce 30 kg in a single year. The high productivity makes them highly sort after by locals. Each year the local council holds an auction in which individuals bid for who will get to share in the spoils of nature. Due to the fact that the bees do not use enclosed cavities for nesting, caution must be taken, as they will attack if disturbed. The same species is harvested very successfully throughout other parts of India, Cambodia and Nepal.

Positioned in nearly impossible areas to access. Thankfully the bees, if undisturbed, pose no threat to humans and are peaceful.
Positioned in nearly impossible areas to access. Thankfully the bees, if undisturbed, pose no threat to humans and are peaceful.
A zoomed in look at the comb
A zoomed in look at the comb

Quite extraordinarily these bees are migratory, returning to the exact same location every year even though most, if not all, of the original workers might be replaced in the process. The mechanism of memory retention and how they are able to do this is still being studied.

Now for the cool part…

The Giant Rock Bee practices something known as ‘heat-balling’. When a predator, who is attempting to rob and kill the brood, arrives at the hive, the guard bees will react by surrounding the predator. They instantly create a large ball around the danger, for example a wasp. Once balled up the Giant Rock Bees will raise their body temperatures both cooking and cutting off all the oxygen to the wasp, thereby killing it.

They can be very large and are teeming with bees.
They can be very large and are teeming with bees.

Written, photographed and filmed by Adam Bannister

4 thoughts on “The Bees that cook their enemy

    1. Thanks Dushy.
      Glad you are enjoying. You may find it interesting to know that as of the end of January most of the bees have started migrating away from the area.

  1. This is a most extraordinary story. Somewhat different to the behaviour of the bees in Okavango. Now for the questions: is there the equivalent of a ‘honey badger’ in India and is there the equivalent of the “honey guide’ that leads the animal to the hive?

    1. Just last week some of the staff saw a honey badger in the camp itself. They call it a ratel. The positioning of the bee hives, however, makes it impossible for the honey badger to get to. In terms of a honey guide like bird, not that I am aware of. There are numerous birds that feed on the bees and the comb, but nothing that leads people to the hives, as far as I have learnt this far.

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