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Just like most intelligent animals, bees communicate with each other. They don’t use words like we do, or clicks like dolphins, but they do have a highly sophisticated method of communication. Bees need to communicate with each other regarding the location of food, possible new hive sites and their quality, potential danger, and a variety of other things.
Honey bee communication is about three primary methods they leverage. The first, and easiest to understand, is touch. Bees touch their antennae to identify each other and their feet to measure the size of comb cells. Given this important task, bees are quite fastidious about keeping their antennae clean.
Secondly, bees use pheromones. Each hive has its own unique scent, which allows the bees to identify their family members. The queen produces her own pheromone, which inhibits the other females from laying eggs and draws her brood to her. Certain pheromones are also released if the bees sense danger.
Lastly, bees use the waggle dance. This is the most unique method of communication known to nature, or at least I think so. Using an intricate set of dance steps bees returning from foraging or hive site exploration describe to other bees in the hive the location and quality of these sites. The hive “votes” on the most viable site by the number of bees joining in the dance and the intensity of the dancing itself. In the case of selecting a new hive site, the bees will only relocate when a unanimous decision has been reached.
My favorite resource on the waggle dance is Thomas Seeley’s Honeybee Democracy. It’s a bit technical, but immensely interesting. Seeley discusses his study of the waggle dance and how each step translates into a specific meaning. If you’re as fascinated with the hive mind as I am, this book does a wonderful job of explaining it.
Yes, you read that right. The bees do talk to us. And no, I don’t mean in some metaphysical sense, nor do I mean with words. That buzz noise we all associate with bees? It changes depending on the bees’ mood. If the bees are feeling threatened or distressed, it increases in intensity and volume. When the bees are calm, it is quieter and slower.
The first thing I do during any hive inspection, or any other time I approach the hive, is listen. If the bees sound “happy,” I know I can proceed without concern. If they sound “angry,” I may elect to return another time. Disturbing already anxious or upset bees is a sure way to get stung. Also, because the fear pheromone smells, to the bees, like bananas, I elect to avoid the fruit during bee season.
And speaking of stings… That is, in fact, another way bees talk to us. Honeybees only sting when the feel threatened. If they perceive that either brood or food may be at risk, they will sting. They’ll warn us first with the changing in buzzing just mentioned, but if we don’t listen, they sting us. Each female bee stings only once and dies as a result. If we heed the warning and retreat, we won’t be stung after that. Honeybees, unlike Africanized bees, don’t chase or follow. Once they know the danger is moving away, the go back to work and gradually calm down.
Beekeepers who understand the ways bees communicate with each other and with us will likely be more successful and, in my opinion, enjoy the beekeeping experience much more. For me, understanding how they talk to each other makes looking in the hive that much more exciting and fascinating. And understanding how they talk to me means I’m able to interact with them in a way that keeps them happy and me unharmed.
Honey bee communication is on par with much more advanced animals. Certainly, for the insect world, they have the most advanced system of communication I’m aware of. It’s just one of the many reasons I love beekeeping and feel inspired each trip to the apiary. I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I do.