All animals have unique ways of communicating with each other. Some use body language and eye contact, while others have vocal patterns.
Honey bees have two primary methods of talking to one another: movement and odor. Bees use these behaviors, such as the famous “waggle” dance, to send messages throughout the colony, locate a nearby food source, and communicate other information.
To learn more, check out our guide to understanding honey bee communication.
Bees’ Roles in the Hive
It’s important to first understand the different roles bees have in a hive to get a context on bee communication. There are three main types of honey bees in a beehive:
Queens are responsible for three things: egg-laying, regulating hive activity, and swarming. Living an average of one to two years, the queen bee produces chemicals or pheromones to affect the behavior of other bees in the hive. She also sends signals when it’s time to swarm.
Queen bees emit distinct pheromones unique to a hive, which are recognized by the entire colony. Only one queen bee exists in a colony.
Drones are responsible for reproduction, being the only males in a hive. They are larger than workers but smaller than queens and comprise 10% to 15% of the hive population. Once fully mature, drones fly out of the hive and wait to mate with virgin queens. They then die after mating, but unsuccessful drones return to the hive and are fed until the summer ends. Drones are pushed out of the hive and left to starve or freeze throughout the winter.
Only surviving for an average of five to seven weeks, workers represent 80% to 99% of the colony. Worker bees are female, yet they do not reproduce. They play several roles throughout their lives, from hive cleaning to receiving food from field bees to foraging for food, water, and resin.
How Bees See Flowers
Honey bees use all their senses to communicate and find the best flowers. Before relaying information to other bees in the colony, they first need to lay their eyes on the right flower—but how?
Honey bees see colors like most insects, but they can’t discriminate reds very well. For them, a perfectly red flower will appear black. However, honey bees see ultraviolet rays that humans can’t. In fact, flowers that appear to have uniform colors in the human eye may be marked with ultraviolet lines and patterns that point bees toward where the nectar or pollen is concentrated.
This speeds up the process of gathering food from flowers and returning to the hive, where other bees can start collecting them.
The easiest form of honey bee communication is through touch. Bees touch each other’s antennae to identify their fellow bee and communicate during waggle dance. When a bee uses its antennae to touch an object, it may stick out its tongue to taste it.
Meanwhile, they use their feet to measure the size of comb cells, which is important in creating a flawless-looking honeycomb grid. This mode of communication is also why bees are particular about keeping their antennae clean.
Bees are also covered in tiny hairs filled with nerve endings sensitive to vibration frequencies, which they use when detecting danger. They can also tell they are being touched because of these hairs.
When a honey bee has a successful foraging trip, it will return to the hive with valuable information about food sources, a safe drinking hole, or other knowledge about the surrounding area.
The worker bees dance to communicate this information. The most well-known waggle dance has to do with locating food sources. When a worker bee dances for its fellow workers, it uses certain movements and angles its body in a specific pattern to tell the others where it found nectar- and pollen-rich flowers.
Bee communication in the hive is amazing, considering they mostly dance in the dark. It can be compared to how our central nervous system works.
There are two main food dances. The first, called a “round” dance, concerns nearby food sources within about 50 meters of the hive.
Dancing bees will move in a series of narrow circles to let the other workers know the direction of the food. Then it turns around and walks in the opposite direction in the same circle, repeating the movement many times. The honey bee can also include a little waggle when turning around, the duration of which determines the quality of the flower patch.
Honey bees perform a waggle dance in a figure-eight pattern for a food source further away from the hive. In 1940, Karl von Frisch discovered and named this special bee movement, which helps honey bees communicate the location of food and nectar.
The waggle dance involves vibrating and buzzing with its wings. The intensity of the waggle, interpreted by the bee’s abdomen, indicates just how far the food source is. The honey bee also angles its body in relation to the sun to point toward the food source.
Since multiple bees arrive and relay their discoveries, the hive then “votes” on the most viable site through the most number of bees joining the waggle dance and how intense it gets. The hive will only select a new hive site when the bees create a unanimous decision.
Odor Cues or Pheromones
Part of understanding how honey bees communicate is learning how pheromones work. Pheromones are chemical substances that bees produce to signal to the rest of the colony.
Bumblebees, in particular, secrete pheromones instead of dancing to relay their findings to other bees.
There are many kinds of pheromones that elicit several different responses. The first is an alert pheromone that bees use to communicate a nearby threat.
Queen bees also produce special pheromones to help control the population. For example, if she releases a pheromone that tells the others she’s alive and healthy, it encourages the rest of the colony to stay productive for the hive.
In the case of bumblebees, they do a series of runs while fanning their wings to signal that they have found an abundant food source. The fanning emits scents from the place they returned from, exciting other workers and urging them to follow the trail.
This method may not be as thorough as the round or waggle dance, which tells the exact location of the flower, but it works as it determines that a good flower is present nearby.
Vibration and Sound
Solitary bees, those that don’t live in a hive, have other means of communication. Since they don’t need to communicate with other bees like what happens in a colony, they use vibrations and sounds instead. They use these methods to scare off predators or signal potential mates. Other forms of communication include the following:
- Female bees create buzzing vibrations to lead males into their underground tunnels.
- Male bees create a faint buzz during mating season, increasing females’ receptivity.
- Bees create a collective buzz to inhibit others from moving in case of danger.
- They buzz loudly when predators or people come too close to their nest.
Talking to People
Honey bees communicate with people through their buzzing, which depends on their mood. For instance, when they feel threatened or distressed, they tend to buzz with increasing intensity and volume. On the other hand, they are quieter when calm.
The bees’ buzzing sound is an important cue for beekeepers, especially during hive inspections or harvesting for honey. If bees sound calm, you know it’s safe to proceed. But if they sound loud or angry, something could go wrong if you continue to disturb the hive, and you’re likely to get stung.
Stinging is another way bees communicate with people. If you don’t recognize the warning through their buzzing, they sting you, resulting in a female honey bee dying after the sting. But if you heed the warning and leave the hive, honey bees won’t chase you as they know the danger is gone.
Bees are fascinating creatures, and we learn more about them every day. If you are a beekeeper or work with bees, understanding them is crucial to make your beekeeping experience successful and worthwhile. Plus, it helps keep you and the bees safe.
If the buzz about bees has swept you up, you can learn more and even buy package bees for sale to start your own fulfilling career as a beekeeper.