Asian honeybees vibrate their wings to make a noise that sounds like "fear screams" when threatened by giant hornets .

Honeybee on yellow coneflower
Credit: Sumiko Scott / Getty Images

Researchers have uncovered a startling, "previously undescribed" way that some honeybees warn each other of potential predators.

The Asian honeybee (Apis cerana) uses its wings to generate a sound akin to a human scream when certain hornets are nearby, according to a study published in Royal Society Open Science journal last week.

The bees were capable of producing a sound "like a shriek," Ohio's Central State University entomologist Hongmei Li-Byarlay told the New York Times. The bees make the noise when threatened by predatory hornets (Vespa velutina) outside their nest by running with their abdomen exposed and vigorously flapping their wings.

One of the authors of the study, Dr. Heather Mattila of Wellesley College, told the New York Times that "there is something very human and recognizable in the sounds."

She and her team placed recorders inside of hives to document the unique sound after Mattila heard the screams in Vietnam in 2013 while working on another study, the New York Times reported. They also put video cameras outside of hives' entrances.

Mattila and University of Louisiana at Lafayette research technician Hannah Kernen later analyzed the recordings by comparing the sounds recorded inside and outside of the hives.

They found that the presence of certain hornets near the hives correlated with the scream-like sound produced by the honeybees.

"Apis cerana colonies produced hisses, brief stop signals and longer pipes under hornet-free conditions. However, hornet-attack stimuli—and V. soror workers in particular—triggered dramatic increases in signalling rates within colonies," the study's abstract states.

"Soundscapes were cacophonous when V. soror predators were directly outside of nests, in part because of frenetic production of antipredator pipes, a previously undescribed signal," the study says. "Antipredator pipes share acoustic traits with alarm shrieks, fear screams and panic calls of primates, birds and meerkats."

"Based on the timing of their production, it is reasonable to speculate that, at a minimum, antipredator pipes inform nestmates about the presence of a hornet outside the nest," the study says.


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