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Homesteading and Livestock

Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.

Interpreting the Buzz of Honeybees


Every visit to the bee yard, I learn something new. Either about beekeeping in general or about my particular colonies. In previous years, I have gone four to six weeks without opening a hive. This spring and summer, the longest is two weeks. It is one thing to read about bee behavior and quite another to experience it for yourself. My latest curiosity is about the sound of the bees.

Yes, bees buzz. But careful attention reveals there is a difference in their sounds. This morning I was sitting on the deck, probably 3000 yards from the bee hives yet I recognized the sound of the foragers buzzing around me. I can close my eyes and differentiate between the honey bees, the bumble bees and the wasps.

Learning their behavior and sounds keeps me from being freaked out by the close feel and sound of a honey bee buzzing my hair. As long as I do not threaten her, i.e. slap and flail around, she is unlikely to sting me. She is checking to see who I am, if I am a source of nectar/food for her and a general check of what is in her environment. Honestly I never thought I would be able to overcome that innate reaction to swat away something buzzing so near my head.

Let’s examine three levels of honeybee sounds.

Low Hum

When a honeybee is simply going about her work, she naturally buzzes. When you properly smoke the entrance to the hive, then again as you open the cover, you recognize this as a low hum. Using smoke calms the bees and masks their alarm pheromone. The bees continue their work, crawling over the frames, feeding brood, making bee bread and other necessary tasks of the day.

I notice that when I am calm and move with sure, gentle movements, it helps the bees remain calm as well. I talk to them, so they know the sound of my voice and know that I am there to help them, not to harm. They move through the hive in a contented peaceful hum.

Think of this level of buzz as the idle of a car engine. Sitting at a stop sign, foot off the gas pedal, the engine hums with readiness, but there is no impetus for movement. It is simply running.

Medium Hum

If I happen to lose my grip on a frame during inspection, or suddenly bump something, jostling the bees, the sound frequency will rise noticeably. A few bees may fly up into my face or bump the hood of my protective jacket. I talk to them more in a calm voice, telling them there is no need for alarm. I apologize for the disruption and add a little smoke. Usually this calms them and I can proceed.

This is not a full out alarm situation. The bees have noticed more of a disruption in their world and check to see if the threat is real. They are on guard.

Compare this increased alert to when you step on the gas pedal in your car to start moving from the stop sign. The engine sounds louder and increases in pitch. It is a (hopefully) gentle but deliberate movement of the car in response. Something has changed and the engine noise reacts. There is a distinct difference in the sound between the frequency of movement and the pitch of the idle.

High-Pitched Buzz

Sometimes I aggravate the bees too much. Last week, the day got away from me and it was near dark when I took liquid feed to the new colonies. My mistakes were three-fold. Being in a hurry, not taking a hive tool and neglecting to take the smoker. My rationale was that it was only going to be a small lifting of the inner and outer cover, no need to get into the hive body proper, so surely this could be done with no smoke. I was wrong.

The bees were feeding, coming up through the slot in the top feeder and did not appreciate my intervention. I talked to them and told them I was only bringing syrup for their feeding pleasure. Without a hive tool, the inner cover was stuck and required a bit of force to loosen (read: significant jostling of the hive).

Immediately the pitch of the buzz rose an octave. Warning bumps to my veiled head. The fervent and easily recognizable warning signs that someone was about to be stung if they didn’t get out of there.

Imagine passing a truck on a two lane road with oncoming traffic. On a hill. Limited visibility. You know you shouldn’t have tried to pass, but there you are in the passing lane. You hit the gas pedal hard and the engine responds with a distinct whining. Your heart rate is up, the engine’s RPM’s are up and it is go time.

I hurried through dumping in the feed, closed the hive and got out of there. A couple of guard bees followed me for a hundred yards or so, making sure I was gone. I also learned that a determined bee, crushed in the crook of my elbow can push a stinger through the heavy canvas fabric of my protective jacket.

I shall not make that mistake again.

The more frequently I can inspect the hives, the more the bees come to know me and understand my intentions. And with the increased frequency I am also more sure of myself so do fewer alarming things to get their engines racing.

Get out there and experience your bees.

Julia Miller is the co-owner of Five Feline Farm in Central Illinois. In addition to honeybees, the farm provides produce, hive products, and baked goods at the 18th Street Farmer’s Market in Charleston. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and her website. Read all of Julia's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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