How do honeybees talk to each other? Most commonly they do the waggle dance, a series of wiggles and figure-8 movements that a bee uses to tell her sisters where the newest garden of delicious nectar is. They also 'speak' by using odor cues, or pheromones, and their antennae absorb information.

An emerging virgin queen bee is very vocal and a new study helps us understand what she is talking about. New research upends prior interpretations of queen bee piping, which is the term used for her acoustic signals leading up to swarming time. These were thought to mean that two queen bees were sizing each other up.

Listen to a queen bee tooting in this 0:39-second video:



The new study was published in Scientific Reports and consisted of apiarists placing ultra-sensitive vibration sensors called accelerometers into the brood combs of 25 hives. Of these, 22 colonies were near Paris, France, with 1 in Jarnioux, eastern France and 2 in Nottingham, UK.

Recordings showed that queens still in their cells quacked, whereas queens that had emerged tooted. There can be many quackers at once but no two queens tooted at the same time.

This informs worker bees that one queen is free roaming and it also tells them how many are still encapsulated in their queen cells, according to lead researcher for the study at Nottingham Trent University, Dr. Martin Bencsik.

The worker bees do what is necessary to keep the unhatched queen bees captive in their cells to avoid competition between queens. They do this very successfully, since no two new queens were heard tooting at the same time on the recordings.

When the tooting stops, it indicates that the new queen has swarmed, so they can release another new queen. Scientists find that worker bees can wait 4-7 days after tooting stops before releasing another queen.

When there is no more quacking, this is a signal to worker bees that only one queen bee remains so they should not swarm.

In summary, when a queen is ready to hatch from her queen cell, she starts quacking to let worker bees know she is present. Her quacks say, "Release me!" When she escapes her cell her 'quacks' change to 'toots' and she is saying, "I am free!" 

This 0:27-second video by the Telegraph refers to the Nottingham Trent University study findings:

When a honeybee queen is ready to leave her hive in a swarm to settle a new colony, she fills the hive with a symphony of ‘toots’ so her worker bees know it is time to emerge and swarm. Half the hive will leave with this new queen and together they will settle a new colony.

This changed chorus is also a trigger to worker bees to trap all other unhatched queens inside their cells until the ‘tooting’ queen has taken leave of the premises because if two queens were to meet, they would fight to the death.

This study shows the potential to predict when a swarm will occur up to 30 days beforehand, so beekeepers can predict when hives will split with a greater chance of accuracy.

Dr. Michael Ramsey, a Nottingham scientist on the study, sees this method as having huge potential as a useful tool for beekeepers to monitor potential swarming preparation in their colonies, which can help save time, effort and money. It also allows for minimal colony disruption by adjusting swarm prevention measures.

To read the in-depth study and view the charts and diagrams, access the scientific study at this link