Bees are known for their painful stings, but someday they may also be recognized for providing pain relief. A recently discovered compound secreted when honeybees bite could one day lead to the production of a natural anesthetic for humans and other animals.
Called 2-heptanone (2-H), the anesthetic is a naturally occurring compound found in many foods and is produced by some insects. Until now, it was not believed to carry anesthetic benefits.
Greek and French scientists working for honeybee health specialist Vita Ltd. were investigating the damage caused by the wax moth larvae to honeycombs when they stumbled upon the true properties of 2-H. Their research, published in the peer reviewed journal PLOS ONE, found that the honeybee uses its mandibles to bite smaller enemies it can’t sting. The bees then secrete 2-H into the wound.
“Wax moths are a serious honeybee pest whose larvae consume wax and pollen, often completely destroying honeycomb. When exposed to 2-heptanone, the wax moths appeared to die,” said Dr. Alexandros Papachristoforou. “However, on closer inspection, we realized that the wax moths were merely anesthetized for a period of one to nine minutes.”
Once anesthetized, the honeybee ejects the enemy from the hive.
Until now, it was thought that 2-H was either a honeybee alarm pheromone or a chemical marker that signals to other bees that a flower had already been visited.
“It is amazing that this second line of honeybee defense has gone undetected for so long,” said Papachristoforou. ”Beekeepers will be very surprised by our discovery and it is likely to cause a radical rethink of some long-held beliefs. It will probably stimulate honeybee research in many new directions.”
One direction that research could take is the development of 2-heptanone as a pain reliever. In laboratory trials, 2-H was found to have a similar mode of action as Lidocaine, a widely used local anesthetic.
Because it is found naturally in foods such as beer and white bread, 2-H has already been approved by the FDA as a food additive. That pre-approval, says Vita scientists, indicates just how safe it is, and why it offers significant potential as an alternative to Lidocaine.
“We are very excited about our findings on at least two levels,” said Dr. Max Watkins, Vita’s Technical Director. “Firstly, the revelation that honeybees can bite enemies that they cannot sting confounds some existing ideas and adds significantly to our biological knowledge.”
“Secondly, the discovery of a highly effective natural anesthetic with huge potential will be of great interest to the pharmaceutical industry eager to develop better local anesthetics.”
Vita has already patented the 2-H compound and is seeking pharmaceutical partners to develop it further.