honey bee behavior

A beekeeping mystery

Mysterious behavior

About ten days ago, on a cold and gusty mid-April day, I was making the rounds of my hives. All the colonies were tucked in against the 40-degree mid-morning sunshine. All but one.

Inexplicably, one hive had a group of about 200 bees frantically fanning at the opening. Other bees were nearby clutching blades of grass and fanning, and still others were fanning from their perches on the legs of the hive stand. Every bee was was facing the hive and beating its wings at a frenetic pace.

I’ve seen similar behavior when young queens are out on a mating flight. Some workers fly out with the queen, and others fan the entrance, making sure she know how to get back home.

Too cold for mating flights

The problem with this theory is that it was cold, windy, and early in the year. As a matter of fact, I hadn’t seen a single drone in 2015. So it didn’t seem like a mating kind of day.

It was too cold to dig through the hive and, at any rate, I didn’t want to disturb whatever operation they had going. Nevertheless, I did remove the lid for a peek. As soon as I opened it I heard the unmistakable sound of queen piping and chirping—as noisy as broody hens all scrambling for the same nest. I quickly replaced the lid, perplexed.

The colony isn’t large but about normal for having just overwintered. The queen is an unknown. Although she is marked, this colony was a mid-summer swarm that nested in a trap last year.

Due to temperatures and my own schedule, I haven’t yet been able to examine the colony, but from the outside all seems normal again. Nothing about it looks swarmy, so I imagine it must have been a supersedure in progress.

But will a colony send a virgin out on a cold and blustery day without a drone in sight? Do scout bees survey the local DCAs (drone congregation areas) before the virgin goes out, or do they just hope for the best? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but from my point of view it doesn’t look good. Any thoughts?



  • The only reason I can think of for the bees to make queen cells regardless of the presence or absence of mature drones would be in a queen event, where they would make emergency cells and hope for the best. Your hive may have been queenless, and new queens have emerged from emergency cells. Just a guess Rusty. 🙂

    • Lee,

      Of course they would need a fertile queen to lay the eggs for a queen cell to be made, unless she just died (within the preceding three days) and the eggs were already there.

  • I must be at the age that my hearing is getting very poor. I opened a hive last year that lost its queen and both queen and queenless hives sounded the same.

    I will have to get a sound device to listen in.

  • I heard the piping sound from guard bees once when I peeked under the lid on a cool late winter day to do a quick check on food supplies. A few seconds later a small group of guard bees flew up to tell me to get the heck out! It sounded just like Seeley described in Honeybee Democracy when scout bees indicate it’s time to go to the new home.

    • Interesting, JoAnne. I wish I knew what mine were up to . . . and who was dong the talking. I’m sure mine were queens, though, because I’ve heard it before when I actually saw the cells.

  • Rusty, we had 2 colonies raise, mate, and started laying at the beginning of April…both were supercedures…

  • That is awesome. I have never heard anything other than the buzz. I will have to pay more attention to sounds. I will get an microphone and listen in on my hives.

  • I think the talking is to call out any rivals. If nobody responds they’d probably stop hollering and get down to business. There can be only one. 🙂

  • I’ve never heard the piping in any of my hives but when transporting truckloads of package bees in the spring we always have several boxes with 100 or so extra caged queens in the cab of the semi with us, those queens are frequently “talking”. It is a neat sound to hear, multiple queens vocalizing to each other. Some boxes talk constantly for hours, while others are completely silent for the 40+ hour trip.

    • Micah,

      That is so cool! I wonder why some are quiet and some are talkers. Maybe it only takes one to get the conversation going . . .

      • …and even then, not all of the traveling queens vocalize. It’s hard to tell exactly how many but it sounds like only maybe 20 out of a hundred are piping with each other.

    • Melinda,

      But I’ve heard piping queens before and I recognized it immediately. It is quite distinctive. And combined with the outside behavior, I think it was supersedure.

  • Scientist at the University of Maryland and the United States Department of Agriculture have teamed up and recently reported that Colony Collapse Disorder is caused by multiple factors. It is from bees collecting pollen that has been contaminated by insecticides and fungicides and feeding it to their hives. The combination of pesticides causes the bees’ immune system to be compromised. With a compromised immune system the bees cannot fight off the parasite called Nosema ceranae. The scientists came to this conclusion by collecting pollen in the northeastern United States from watermelons and cranberries and other bee-pollinated agricultural plants. They fed the pollen to bees, which caused their immune systems to be impaired. The bees that ate the contaminated pollen were three times more likely to die from the parasite than other bees.

  • Rusty,

    Thanks for your stories. I’m always learning. Let us know. These bees always amaze me. I was wondering if I had 2 queens in my hive or 2 colonies in one hive! Well, anyhow this happened to me this weekend.

    This week I had an urgent situation that needed tended to with the bees. A hive split had grown so much in a short time I had to give another additional box. We’ll I went into top, tried to pull inner cover only to realize I had about 30 lbs of bees and comb stuck to inner top cover. I had a baggie feeder on top of a walkaway split I did in early May. Not good because this is only way to go in hive for us humans.

    Well I was upset cause I knew what had to be done. So I smoked, they wouldn’t all leave, sprayed Bee Quick (they hate smell), 97% left comb. I scraped it all off, discovered brood. I felt awful. I worried queen was killed/lost. So I figured they would have to make another queen. 3-6 weeks of work.

    I went out this morning to feed the new hives to help them build new comb and brood. I saw a tiny cluster of bees on the tree stump I used as a table yesterday. I looked closely and noticed bee attendants & drones in a formation facing each other with heads touching. I thought, hmmmm I wonder if queenie is in there. A puff of smoke and they separated and out she marched in all her glory, dragging her big butt train behind her!!!!! I was so excited. I scooped her up carefully and put her on her front door of her hive and in she went. Yay. Her hive was excited too!! I could hear her calling “I’m back! Now clean me up! I’m exhausted!!!!” I’m a 3rd year beekeeper. So I make a lot of mistakes and learn the hard way. I prayed for my queenie and her hive. The good Lord even takes care of our bees.


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