Honeybees’ buzzing can shed light on Queen’s fertility, study finds

Honeybees' buzzing can shed light on Queen's fertility, study finds

The buzzing of bees can provide beekeepers with crucial information about the fertility of the queen in the hive, according to a new study which could play a key role in helping to preserve honeybee colonies.

Research led by scientists at Nottingham Trent University focused on developing a way to remotely monitor the ‘brood’, or reproductive, activity in the hive – something which is essential to the overall health and survival of a colony.

By detecting and translating vibrations caused by the buzzing of bees, the researchers were able to indirectly determine the absence or presence of a laying queen, specifically whether a brood cycle was occurring, and what stage it was at.

Monitoring the brood would enable beekeepers to get a good indication of the health of the queen, as well as how ‘dynamic’ she is.

The work, published in the journal PLOS ONE, involved embedding tiny accelerometers – devices sensitive to minute vibrations – in the honeycomb of a series of hives. This enabled the team to monitor vibrational amplitude and frequency information to identify honeycomb load changes and patterns of buzzing which shed light on the brood cycle status.

The researchers have also developed a prototype device which, based on the vibrational signal from the hive, would enable beekeepers to receive wireless, instant, alerts – via email or SMS – relating to the health of their colonies.

The work – which comes as honeybee populations continue to decline – would make it possible for beekeepers to take swift remedial action to protect their hives, before a colony perishes.

It could also pave the way for beekeepers to reduce the amount of visits and inspections they have to carry out, regardless of hive conditions.

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Unnecessary visual inspections can place substantial stress on a hive. The daily activities of the hive are disrupted for some time after the inspection, the queen can be inadvertently killed, leading to the overall failure of the colony, or the colony can be disrupted by cooling down the brood, which needs to remain at 34-35 degrees Celsius.

As well as the occupational hazard of getting stung, it can also take up a huge amount of the beekeeper’s time, as every hive must be inspected every eight days during the swarming season, and commercial bee farms can have many thousands of hives.

In the case of a queen in poor health – or absence of a fertile queen – beekeepers might need to check that the colony isn’t diseased, consider introducing a new queen, or unite the remaining bees with another colony.

The brood cycle only stops during winter – it should be visible in a healthy hive from late February to late November – and is the means by which a colony sustains its numbers and continues to thrive.

The cycle starts with an empty honeycomb, which the worker bees clean before the queen fills the cells with eggs. These then ‘hatch’ to become grubs and the cells are capped with beeswax when they pupate, before emerging as adult bees. When one frame is filled, the queen moves to the next frame and the process is repeated. Each cycle takes about 21-24 days.

Dr Martin Bencsik, a physicist in Nottingham Trent University’s School of Science and Technology, said: “It is essential that we find new affordable ways which can accurately – and less invasively – assess honeybee colony status. This could help the beekeeping industry which is presently facing difficult times.

“Queen bee health is central to the health of an overall hive; we believe our work will soon help the beekeeping practice, particularly by reducing the need to unnecessarily visually inspect some healthy colonies.”

The study also involved the National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA) in France and the Beekeeping Centre of Research and Information (CARI) in Belgium.

It is the latest in a series of studies involving the ‘Swarmonitor’ consortium – initiated by Nottingham Trent University and the Bee Farmers Association of the United Kingdom (BFA) – which shows how buzzing may indicate specific health disorders, or deterioration in the hive.

Veterans in Beekeeping – In Honor of All Our War Veterans.


vets beekeeping
Image: 1919 Pamphlet; Bee
Keeping to the Disabled Soldiers, Sailors, and Marines to Aid Them in Choosing a

During WW1 the Federal Government was concerned about disabled
veterans finding work when they returned from the war. Because of advancements
in warfare, veterans were coming home with severe war injuries, and the
Government was concerned about the disabled veterans ability to integrate back
into society and earn a living. The Government developed vocational training for
veterans in various fields of work to help advance them in the direction of the
occupation of which he or she choose. One of the programs developed to help
wounded veterans adapt to their injuries was Beekeeping. Beekeeping was
considered a viable alternative career because a veteran could work alone, and a
slower pace, and still contribute to society. 
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A group of seven extension
workers was hired to teach better beekeeping methods to the veterans. -George
Demuth, Dr, E.F. Phillips, Frank Pellett, Jay Smith, E. R, Root, and M. I.
Mendelson. Walter Quick wrote the pamphlet pictured above in 1919, titled: “Bee
Keeping to the Disabled Soldiers, Sailors, and Marines to Aid Them in Choosing a
Vocation” (Ref. Bees in America: How the Honey Bee Shaped a Nation. By Tammy

Waggle Dance Detectives

It isn’t often that we have the pleasure of meeting and hearing a real expert.

I attended a talk recently by Professor Ratniek of Sussex University. It was organised by local beekeepers. They all knew a thing or two. But you know a real expert when they open up complex ideas and then put them across in a simple, understandable way.

Professor Ratniek is such a person.

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He heads up LASI at Sussex University – not the dog but the Laboratory of Apiculture and Social Insects.

Prof Ratniek and his trusty researchers have been putting on their Sherlock Holmes deer stalker hats and getting out their magnifying glasses to view thousands of bee waggle dances. Bees use the waggle dance to tell their fellow bees where they have found a promising food source.`

By decoding the dances, LASI built up a picture of where the bees were telling their bee mates to go to forage, thus deducing where the bees actually went to collect nectar and pollen. A nifty bit of detective work by our academics – using the bees to do their own leg work.

The surprising thing was the results. Bees were travelling huge distances but also travelling much more in the summer than in the spring to find food .


The picture above shows a plot of where the dancing bees were telling their nest mates to go. On the right, the plot shows that in spring in 2010 and 2011 the bees were flying about a kilometre on average to forage.

That is amazing itself. These tiny creatures were flying 1km there, collecting a basketful of pollen and then flying 1km back.

In the summer in those same years – shown on the left, the bees were flying three kilometres on average to their food destination and as far as 10 kilometres to bring home the bacon (so to speak). That is, to be quite clear, 10kms there and 10km back! I think that is a marvel.

In the autumn, it is somewhere in-between.

The distances flown by the bees are astounding but why do the bees have to fly so much further in the summer than the spring or even the autumn?

The answer is thought to be that in the spring we have a huge abundance of flowers from dandelions to crocuses to fruit trees and other trees. In the autumn, we have ivy flowering. It is a very discrete flower, most people don’t even know that it flowers but it is plentiful and the bees love it.


In the summer though there are fewer flowers about. The hay meadows of the past have largely gone and the way we farm to feed our prosperous mouths means a monoculture with not a flower to be seen, acre after acre. There is also a lot of competition about as well, with many more insects such as bumble bees at their maximum population in the summer.

So, our wonderful academics have shown that the bees fly astonishing distances to provide for their hive but also that habitat loss has a real impact on the bees. And they have demonstrated it so beautifully and simply.