Spring has begun to emerge beneath Chicago’s perpetual blanket of winter snow. With grass turning green, trees sprouting leaves and flowers burgeoning over the next few months, it is hard to think of anything negative about the spring season. But there is one thing most of us fret: the bees.
Many of us fear the incessant buzzing that is bound to erupt during a romantic spring picnic, or the swarm of hornets that reside just outside our apartment. We dread running around and flailing our arms while strangers across the street gape at our “spring time dance,” unaware of a small but mischievous insect attacking us.
Bees: small but painful little creatures. Most of us can vividly remember our first bee sting. My first bee stings, unfortunately, came from the breaking of a hive.
What makes a bee sting so painful? Bee venom is a complex mixture of proteins and peptides, both naturally occurring biological molecules. The most abundant component in bee venom is a short peptide, melittin.
Melittin is a biologically active peptide, a short chain of 26 amino acids. Melittin acts by disrupting cell membranes, the “walls” that protect the inside of cells, and stimulates the second component of bee venom, phospholipase A2. The enzyme, phospholipase A2, further aids in disrupting membranes by breaking chemical bonds that make up lipids in the membrane. This membrane disruption releases molecules that trigger a cascades of event, ultimately leading to inflammation and discomfort at the site of a bee sting.
With the pain and discomfort caused by melittin, what is to love about it? As it turns out, melittin can permeabilize the protective envelope that surrounds HIV and other viruses by “poking holes” in them. After the peptide attacks and rupture these structures, the viruses are rendered unable to resume infection. Additionally, scientists are working on harvesting mellitin’s ability to disrupt membranes to specifically target the membranes of cancer cells.
Although painful stings from bees have given some of us reason to despise them, it is important to remember that the sometimes-bothersome creature might lead to the next cancer or HIV therapy. Perhaps these scientific discoveries might spark a new love for these buzzing insects!