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Honeybees let out a whoop when they bump into each other



Whoop whoop! A vibrational pulse produced by honeybees, long thought to be a signal to other bees to stop what they are doing, might actually be an expression of surprise.

Bees produce vibrations with their wing muscles that are inaudible to humans but can be detected by accelerometers embedded in the honeycomb.

In the 1950s, researchers noticed that this signal was often followed by bees exchanging food, and hypothesised that it was a request for food. Later, it was shown that the signal was produced when one bee tried to inhibit another from performing a waggle dance – a behaviour that tells other bees where to forage. It was interpreted as a “stop” signal that warns colleagues against foraging in a location where there might be problems, such as a predator or a researcher bothering the bees for an experiment.

To find out more, Martin Bencsik and colleagues at Nottingham Trent University in the UK used accelerometers to record vibrations inside hives over the course of a year. Then they used software to scan the recordings and identify the signal. Some of these signals have been collected and converted into the sound clip below.

They found that the signal happens much more commonly than we thought, with the accelerometer picking up around six or seven a minute from just a small area of the honeycomb. “There’s no way a bee was trying to inhibit another one that frequently, and there’s no way a bee would request food that frequently” says Bencsik.

They also found that the signal takes place mostly at night – in contrast to waggle dances, which happen in the day when bees are foraging. What’s more, the signal is easy to elicit from hundreds of bees en masse just by knocking gently on the wooden wall of the hive.

Bee bumps
By placing cameras inside the hive, the researchers discovered that the signal often happens when a bee bumps into another bee near the accelerometer, and not when bees are waggle dancing or exchanging food.

“We suggest that, in the majority of instances, it is bees being startled that produce the signal,” says Bencsik. The team propose that instead of the “stop” signal, it should be called the “whooping” signal.

Earlier studies might have misjudged which bee was producing the vibration. When a bee is inhibiting others from foraging, it headbutts the bee that’s doing the waggle dance. Bencsik thinks the vibration might be a startled response by the bee that’s been headbutted and not the inhibitor, since it’s impossible to tell exactly where it’s coming from. Exchange of food between bees is also preceded by headbutting, so that could also be explained by this new interpretation.

It could also offer a way to monitor the status of the colony, by delivering a standardised stimulus and measuring the response. “I would imagine an unstressed colony would have less of a response and a colony that’s very stressed would be very reactive to a small stimulus,” says Bencsik.

Journal reference: PLoS One, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0171162


Such complicated creatures, bees.
Research like this just reinforces the importance of bees own comb for communication. How their language must be scrambled by plastic foundation!


Another reason to give naturally drawn comb a try. Bee health and communication are suffering with so much human intervention.

An extremely interesting read on this subject is “Anatomy of a Controversy” by Adrien M. Werner.


@Dee so are you saying the plastic foundation is similar to making a tin foil hat?


Only if you are Chuck = Jimmy McGill’s brother (“Better Call Saul” TV series). Otherwise it is a bit like being in solitary confinement or a padded cell… :stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye:

Seriously though, there is significant evidence that plastic foundation does interrupt some vibratory communication in the hive. That is why some plastics have cutout corners, and why I use wax foundation. :smile:


Yes. Bees communicate in the dark by vibrating each other or the comb. Plastic doesn’t have the same resonance as thin wax.


Some of the frames in my recent nucs have had plastic foundation. I had to keep them at first because they were covered with brood, but decided to rotate them out as soon as possible. Last year’s deadout frames went into the freezer, and this spring I scraped and chucked two of the frames of black plastic that had unfinished comb on them…the two fully built ones just went into my split yesterday, but at either side of the box. This way I figured they’ll be for food stores rather than brood.


My nucs came on more than 50% plastic frames, so I do the same as you are suggesting. Wax foundation goes in my lowest brood box. Plastic foundation goes in the next one up. Gradually things rotate out in any case. I am not totally against plastic foundation, I just try not to have it in the brood nest, so that the bees can reshape and communicate on the lower frames.


Other than anecdotal discussion are there any fact and data-based studies that prove this?


I also got a few black plastic foundation frames with my recently purchased nucs. Not happy about it. Noticed the bees rather build out foundationless frames than building on the plastic.
Now that I have about 3 plastic frames in 4 colonies’ brood boxes going into winter, I don’t know how to quickly cycle the buggers out.

Have this idea to combine all the plastic frames in one box in spring and somehow use it as a temporary 2nd broodbox till I can cycle them out and throw them into the rubbish.