honey bee behavior

The hum of a happy hive: nothing sounds better

Fireworks above may affect the hum of a hive.

Like us, honey bees can be affected by many different aspects of their environment, including loud noises.

Inside: The hum of a happy hive reminds me of how bees can help us connect to our environment.

After our July 4th fireworks, at nearly midnight, one of our friends pointed to the top-bar hive and asked if we keep a fan in there.

“No,” I said, confused. “No fan.”

“So what’s making all that noise?” he asked.

I then realized he was asking about the hum coming from that very busy hive. It always reminds me of the thrum of a refrigerator or the purr of a cat. But here was a non-beekeeper comparing it to an electric fan. Fair enough.

“What are they doing?” he queried. “I thought bees would be quiet at night, sleeping or something.”

My husband explained how the bees cool the hive and why they must remove water from the nectar. He explained how the bees set up air currents with their wings, and how the collective work of thousands sounds like a well-oiled machine.

It also occurred to me that the fireworks—which I had been torching only 40 feet from the hive—probably agitated the bees as well, adding to the commotion within.

This discussion of hive sounds reminded me that beekeeping engages all the senses, not just some. We see them, hear them, and smell them. We enjoy the taste of their honey and recoil from the burn of their stings. Very few activities engage us as completely—and as viscerally—as beekeeping.

The hum of a happy hive also reminds me of how beekeeping ties our thoughts into other aspects of the environment. The bees are noisy because it is hot, because they have lots of nectar to cure, or because humans are doing obnoxious things. Bees cause us to think about assaults on the environment, things like pesticides, climate change, urbanization—and even fireworks.

So here’s a thought. Instead of banning beekeeping from certain municipalities and neighborhoods, perhaps we should require beekeeping in public schools. If we added a year of beekeeping into the traditional curriculum of reading, writing, and ’rithmetic, we might produce youngsters (and eventually adults) with a better appreciation of the natural world and of the complex relationships that make the damage we do in one place show up so painfully in another.

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  • Hi Rusty. No doubt you are also aware of a bee fanning noise that is called a “queenless roar.” It is measured at 85 decibels. But when a colony has a queen beekeepers don’t pay any attention to the colony noise. But colonies that are queenright and that produces adequate pheromones usually make a noise at 50 dB no matter the ambient temperature.

    Colonies headed by poor queens make a noise between 60 and 80 dB. These colonies also don’t cluster properly at 55-60F. They cluster loosely and sometimes in a chimney shape (rather than the egg shape) in the fall when when temperatures are in the 50s F and low 60s F. Also related to the noise level in colonies with poor queens, there may be 0 to 10 bees in the queen retinue while attractive queens have 12 to 15 in their retinue. Such colonies also don’t cluster evenly over the combs. Colony survival in the fall and winter is directly related to queen attractiveness, as are so-called CCD colonies that abscond in whole or in part. Of course there may be other issues present like viruses.

  • Hi Rusty,

    Great idea about the hives in schools; today’s kids are tomorrows beekeepers.

    We need to get kids involved, if the bees have any chance at all. I think that’s a great idea and good luck with it.

    Thanks, Gary

  • One of my beehives was making the strangest sound last night. Almost like a clicking noise. Or i don’t know but not the regular buzzing sound. I thought maybe they were ticked at the wasps around. Seems like they hide in there when the wasps come around in the evening. I wasn’t sure though. Anyone know if clicking sounds are okay? They still happy? Maybe they were having a party? singing something different. haha

    • Amy,

      I’ve heard that clicking noise too from time to time. I don’t know what is means, but it goes away without any apparent change in the colony.

  • Thanks rusty. I had another idea is may have to do with getting rid of the drones. They seem to make the noises most when they are kicking them out of the hive.

    • Amy,

      My bees are throwing out the drones, and the drones themselves are raising a ruckus. Very noisy.

  • I am a new beekeeper, and one of the boxes in my hive is clicking. its amazingly loud . . . Sounds like someone is crinkling heavy paper inside the box. Forcing drones out of the hive??? Thanks, Kaki

    • Kaki,

      That is a frequent sound, although I don’t know what it is. It’s not drone eviction, though.

  • Curious. My hive swarmed five days ago. It has 9 capped queen cells. I’ve been listening to them with my stethoscope. OMG–a repetitive whine like a child doing an ambulance siren–rhythmic, loud (can hear without stethoscope), and tonal with alternating pitch: high, low, high, low, high, low… and on. Sounds like just a few bees making the sound. It will come and go and can last minutes.

    Do you think this is pre-swarm prep sounds? A hive waiting to be queenright? Anyone else heard this??

  • I have 2 hives currently, about 8 feet apart. One hive is pretty quiet while the other is very loud. There are a lot of bees outside the loud one, but I don’t see any fighting. Should I be concerned? In this particular hive, I’ve always had a lot of difficulty locating the queen, although I always see eggs and brood. They are also storing a LOT of nectar.

    What are your thoughts?

  • I also heard the clicking noise, and it seems like it might be associated with this time of year. I was watching one colony that was washboarding this morning but wasn’t yesterday, after reading this: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/316625159_Washboarding_in_Feral_Honey_Bees_Apis_mellifera_Observations_at_Natural_Hives

    Anyways, just to add to the descriptions of this sound: can be heard from 6 feet away, sounds sort of like water dripping or fingernails snapped against each other, I was hearing it around one time every two seconds, intermittently, with periods of not hearing it at all. 75 degrees humid early august New Jersey, 7:45 am. Some other reports: https://www.beesource.com/forums/showthread.php?190970-How-are-they-making-that-clicking-noise

    I’d be extremely curious to learn if others have more insight.

  • I am a new beekeeper and have spent a lot of time listening and watching my colony. Nearing the end of summer I did hear this clicking sound, generally between 5-7ish at night. I could hear it from a few feet away. It was consistent for about a week leading to the fall equinox. I would place my ear on the upper brood box and listen for a while. Intuitively it felt like a positive noise 🙂

    I am in Ontario Canada on Lake Huron.

  • After cleaning our observation hive and giving the bees food it sounded like intermittent singing within the hive. One of the beekeepers here said he had read about bees singing but couldn’t remember why. Any thoughts on this?

  • I would love for more people to learn about bees, but as someone who would end up in the hospital if I were ever stung, and therefore lives in some fear of them, I can’t recommend *requiring* it in schools, nor even having it there at all. I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s allergic.

    • Trayce,

      People can learn lots about bees without actually handling them. The more you know about anything, the better equipped you are to handle a situation. If students learned more about bees and their behavior in schools, there would be fewer stings and fewer misunderstandings. For example, fear causes people to swat at bees, which makes them more likely to sting.

      Knowledge is power.

    • Just for the record, I’m allergic to honey bee venom and I did wind up in the ER. I still keep bees. I’m fortunate to have good health insurance, which covered the Bee Venom Immunotherapy. I can take stings now with only a normal reaction.