How Do Bees Communicate?


Can you imagine living in a house with one mother and tens of thousands of siblings? Imagine the noise? Picture the communication breakdown if bees could talk in the same way people do? It would drive you crazy! As a superorganism the beehive has to have seamless communication through all parts of the organism.  

Beehives are very busy places with thousands of bees in a confined space. There are many roles within the hive all requiring constant communication and interaction. 

There is the all important queen along with worker bees who assume roles such as nurse bees, cleaners, guards, builders, attendants to the queen as well as the field bees who go outside the hive looking for and collecting pollen and nectar. There are also drone bees in the hive. All this activity is coordinated through constant communication.

So how do bees communicate? Bees communicate with physical behaviour and pheromones. Physical actions allow communication within small groups of bees. For example the waggle dance communicates the location of pollen and nectar.  Pheromones allow communication among bees broadly and quickly, like when the hive is threatened. 

The communication of bees within the hive is mind-blowing when you consider it is, for the most part, all done in the dark. Stay with me as we delve deeper into how bees communicate.   

Bee communication through physical behaviors

As humans we use body language to communicate often unintentionally. Some people are better at discerning body language than others. Bees are experts in the use of body language to communicate with other bees furthermore they are actually experts at interpretive dance. 

Bees have three types of dances they use to communicate:

  1. The Waggle Dance 
  2. The Round Dance
  3. The Vibration Dance

1. The Waggle Dance

In the 1940’s, one of the legends of bee research, Karl von Frisch made the groundbreaking discovery that bees perform a special dance to communicate the location of pollen and nectar. In his experiments he set up feeding stations in different locations outside an observation hive. An observation hive has glass panels on the sides so you can observe the activity of the bees.

At each location he put a dab of paint on the foraging bees as they arrived. A different color paint was the indicator for each location. Back at the observation hive, he would observe the behaviour of the returning bees indicated by the paint from each location.

The returning bees would perform a dance which Kal von Frisch named the “waggle dance”.  He discovered that the waggle dance differed for each location. The bee would dance in a figure eight with the angle of the figure eight communicating the direction of the food source in relation to the sun. Bees can see the sun’s polarized light meaning cloudy days are not a problem. 

The speed of the waggle of the bee’s abdomen during the dance indicates the distance to the food source. The distance is believed to be measured by the energy required to fly the distance allowing for the bees to take into account weather conditions like wind.

The Honey Bees Waggle Dance

What is even more amazing about this is that the bees are performing this in what is usually a dark environment.  Other foraging bees crowd around the waggle dancing bee with physical touch being a part of this communication.

This video explains the waggle dance and recreates some of Karl von Frisch experiments demonstrating how the waggle dance relates to the food source locations in the experiment.

2. The Round Dance

Similar to the waggle dance, the round dance is also used to communicate the location of food sources that are close to the hive. The round dance does not provide direction although it does indicate whether the food source is within 100 meters (328 feet) of the hive. For food sources further than this, the waggle dance is performed.  

3. The Vibration Dance

The purpose of the dance is a call to action. Bees in the hive will vibrate their bodies which in turn transmits through surrounding wax combs. This is a signal for foraging bees to get moving because there are available resources for foraging.   

This behaviour changes throughout the seasons, in spring and summer, the vibration dance will begin earlier in the day as the first early foraging bees are returning from successful foraging flights. It is also dependent on the needs of the hive, if more resources are required then the vibration dance occurs more often with the goal to increase the foraging activity. 

We have another article the takes a close look at how bees are able to interpret these vibrations if you are interested. The article is called, Do Bees Have Ears?

Bee Communication Through Pheromones

The second way the bees communicate is through pheromones. So firstly what is a pheromone?

A pheromone is a chemical substance produced and released into the environment by an animal, especially a mammal or an insect, affecting the behavior or physiology of others of its species.

Bees use pheromones extensively, the queen, the drones, the workers and even the wax combs are all in perpetual communication through pheromones.  

Some pheromones are volatile, meaning they are highly soluble to the air and can communicate information quickly to large groups of bees. These are often released when a mass response is required. 

Others have low volatility and are used for close communication in some instances through touch.

The bees have a highly developed sense of smell in their antenne allowing them to quickly receive and understand the messages the pheromones are giving. These pheromones can not only invoke a physical action from the bee, but some can also even have physiological effects on the bees body.

We have an article on bee antennae it is truly amazing how much complex information is processed by the bees antennae. The article is called, Bee Antennae, An Amazing Sensory Super Highway

All three types of bees in the hive communicate with pheromones.

Drone Pheromones

Done bees release a pheromone to attract other drones which results in DCA’s (Drone congregation areas). This pheromone also acts as an aphrodisiac to queen bees, so when a queen is out on a mating flight she is attracted to the DCA. Simultaneously, the queen is also releasing a pheromone that attracts drones, this allows queens to mate with multiple drones in one location from different hives. The more drones she can mate with the greater the genetic diversity of her offspring.

Queen Bee: Egg Laying Pheromone

The queen releases a pheromone from the dufour’s gland in her abdomen that is present on every egg to tell the worker bees that these are her eggs. This is her unique phermonal marker.  If the worker bee does not smell the unique egg laying pheromone they will actually destroy the egg by eating it.

Queen Bee: Footprint Pheromone

Queens also produces a footprint pheromone. This inhibits the production of queen cups by the worker bees. The footprint pheromone is distributed by the queen as she walks around the frames of the hive.

During high congestion times when the hive is full of bees, it is more difficult for the queen to move around. It has been suggested that this is the reason that in the spring queen cups are often produced around the edges of brood frames. This is not necessarily an indication of a hive intention to swarm. 

Queen Bee: Queen Mandibular Pheromone

QMP (Queen Mandibular Pheromone) when produced by the queen signals bees to her attendants to look after her feeding, cleaning of her body and waste removal. The queen holds about 5 mg of QMP at any one time and is continually producing it. Her attendants are regularly licking it from her body. As the attendants have contact with surrounding bees the QMP is spread throughout the hive.  

Because the hive is in complete darkness, the all important QMP plays a crucial role in telling the bees in the hive that the queen is still alive and with them. If the queen dies it only takes about 30 minutes before the whole hive will know they are queenless.

QMP is made up of five known chemicals however research has suggested that there could be as many as 40 chemicals most of which are yet to be identified.  

The 5 known chemicals are:

  • 9 ODA
  • 9 ODA 2
  • 9 HDA
  • HDA
  • HVA

This is what QMP does in the hive:

  • Inhibits workers from making queen cells
  • Inhibits the development of worker bee ovaries
  • Attracts drones to the queen when she is at the DCA 
  • Stimulates foraging behaviours
  • Stimulates queen retinue response  – attendants to tend to the queens needs
  • Stabilizes swarms – holds them together around the queen when swarming.
  • Communicates queens presence and mated status to the hive

Worker Bee: Trail Pheromone

The trail pheromone is thought to be produced in the arnhart glands in the legs of the bees. The trail pheromone is left by worker bees on flowers. This tells other bees who come to the same flower that they have already collected resources from that flower and to go to the next one.

Trail pheromone also can be seen in action when a beekeeper shakes out honey frames for extraction on the ground. The first few bees That walk back into the hive leave a trail of pheromone and almost immediately a mass march of bees can be seen heading into the hive following the trail.

Worker Bee: Scent Pheromones

Scent Pheromone is released by the nasonov gland in the worker bees abdomen. Bee release the pheromone planting their feet on the ground, raising their abdomen high in the air and opening up the last segment of their abdomen. This releases the volatile scent pheromone from the nasonov gland, simultaneously they fan their wings rapidly to propel the pheromone into the air. 

The scent pheromone acts as an attractant to other bees in their hive. Worker bees use it for the following reasons:

  • Queenless roar – the roar is actually the worker bees sending out their scent in the hope the queen will find them again.
  • Used to mark nondescript resources like water in order to attract other bees from their hive to the resource.
  • Used during swarming to help the other bees find the location of their new home.
  • When beekeepers shake bees from honey frames onto the ground the bee at the entrance will use this method to signal the way home for the bees on the ground.

Worker Bee: Alarm pheromone

There are two main types of alarm pheromone 

  • 2-heptanone
  • isopentyl acetate

Alarm Pheromone: 2-heptanone

2-heptanone is released from the mandibular glands on the worker bees mandibles with available quantities increasing with age. Guard bees and foraging bees have large quantities of 2-heptanone available. They use this to touch intruders to the hive marking them with the 2-heptanone pheromone. The intruder, now painted with the pheromone is marked so that every bee in the hive will know they are a threat. This pheromone rallies bees to remove the threat from the hive.

2-heptanone has also been found to have a partial paralyzing effect on its recipient making them slower and easier to defend against, therefore easier to remove from the hive. 

Alarm Pheromone: Isopentyl Acetate

Isopentyl acetate is the active component of this alarm pheromone. It has the ability to get the bees fired up. Although isopentyl acetate is the dominant component of the pheromone. There are estimated to be upwards of 80 other chemicals making up its full composition. It is highly volatile and is released from the Koschevnikov gland located near the sting shaft. 

The alarm pheromone, when released, warns other bees of a potential threat. It creates a readiness to look for that potential threat. This can be a visual cue like a beekeeper working on the hive. Bees in this state will often buzz around the beekeeper as a further warning to back off from their hive.  

A worker bee typically dies when she stings her target so she wants to make sure there is no other option before she decides to sacrifice herself for her colony by stinging the threat.

This is why beekeepers use a smoker at the entrance to the hive and on the open hive whilst they are working on the hive. The smoke aids to mask the alarm pheromones the worker bee release allowing the bees to keep them calm.

The smoke also makes bees gorge themselves on honey, which in turn makes them more docile with a full stomach of honey.

When the worker bee actually stings her victim and the venom sack is torn from her abdomen a large concentration of the alarm pheromone is released on and around the area of the sting.  This high concentration along with the clear visual threat will result in often immediate attacks from other bees to the same area.  

For beekeepers is it a good idea to use the smoker to smoke the area immediately after being stung to again mask the pheromone and reduce the chances of further attacks in that area. 

Brood Pheromones

Even the larvae in the brood combs of the beehive are communicating with the worker bees in the hive. There is a skin pheromone being continually released by the larvae. This brood pheromone is of low volatility and can only be detected by nurse bees when they actually look into the cell. Remembering the bees are working in the dark so the pheromone is alerting the nurse to the presence of the larvae in that cell.

In fact, the pheromone is continually changing to give an accurate account to the worker bee of the age of the larvae. It not only tells the nurse bees to feed the larvae, the worker bee then determines the sex of the larvae and how much food is needed for the larvae.

The brood pheromone like QMP is also an inhibitor of development of ovaries in worker bees.  These two different pheromones working in concert together to both confirm a healthy laying queen.

Wax Comb Pheromone

In a beehive even the wax combs are communicating with the bees in the hive.  A beehive is a superorganism and the wax combs act like the skeleton and a liver. Like a liver the wax combs trap impurities and forigen chemicals by absorbing and containing contaminants from the environment within the matrix of the wax.

The wax combs contain a hoarding pheromone that when empty let the bees know just that, they are ready to be filled. The hoarding pheromone is encouraging foraging activity in order to fill the empty space with resources. 

The Wrap Up

Unlike other species, bees are not simply a bunch of individuals or a big family existing together. These incredible superorganisms are defined by their seamless communication of all activities and behaviours in the hive. 

Together the physical behaviors and pheromonal communication is likened to that of a central nervous system, constantly communicating and monitoring everything. From larvae to the queen, even the wax combs are all communicating doing their part as one for the betterment of the hive at all times.  

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