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Abuzz about you

I am guilty when it comes to anthropomorphizing bees. I compare bees to humans when I’m trying to illustrate a point or suggest a way of understanding them. I have accused worker bees of being neurotic, obsessive-compulsive, and parsimonious. I have compared drones to drunks, state workers, and my brother. So yes, I absolutely understand the urge to personify.

What confuses me, though, is why people equate buzzing with anger. I hear it all the time, both from the public and from beekeepers:

“I was working in my garden and I could hear the bees getting angry.”

“An angry bee buzzed right by my head.”

“When I cut off the burr comb, the bees buzzed angrily.”

“When I popped off the lid, they flew out angry and loud.”

“Listen to that buzz! They’re after me!”

Why do we believe that buzzing and anger are related? A buzzing bee isn’t necessarily an angry bee. A buzzing bee is one whose wings are moving.

I’m not sure why we read so much into wing noise. A bee flitting from flower to flower buzzes but she surely isn’t angry. A bee fanning her Nasanov gland is calling her sisters home, but she is not angry. A bee fanning alarm pheromone may be anxious, but the sound is just wing movement.

If you pop their lid, harvest their honey, or cut off their burr comb, the bees fly out of the hive and consequently buzz. You say they are angry, but how do you know they are not afraid, confused, worried, or disappointed? More than likely, they experience no emotion at all but are just flying in response to disruption.

In flight, a honey bee’s wings beat approximately 230 times per second. When you’ve been around honey bees for a while, you can easily distinguish their buzz from that of the other noisy insects. And like other sounds, the closer the source, the louder it seems.

The bee moves its wings for a variety of reasons, but most of those reasons have nothing to do with anger. Usually a bee moves its wings because it is trying to get from point A to point B. If not, it is trying to get air to move from point A to point B. Moving air distributes pheromones, cools the hive, and dries the honey. If anger (a human idea) is any part of buzzing, it certainly is a minor one.

Whenever someone complains about bees becoming angry, it reminds me of that age-old thought question: If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?

As a kid, I thought that was a ridiculous question. Of course it makes a sound because a sound is just a vibration. Any self-respecting tree tearing off branches, thrashing through the understory, and hurtling to the ground will, of necessity, make vibrations.

Likewise, a bee flying through the air makes vibrations whether you are there to hear it or not. It’s absurdly self-important to think the bee is making all that racket because of you. In fact, you are of no consequence to the bee. She buzzes not from anger but from self-preservation: she keeps flying (and buzzing) so she doesn’t fall out of the air and splat herself on a rock, and she doesn’t give a rip how you feel about it.

I’m not saying a bee won’t occasionally draw a bead and decide your number is up. It happens. But the buzzing is still just wing movement: you can’t hear what’s going on in her head—and you probably wouldn’t want to.

So next time you hear a persistent buzz, don’t take it personally. Your car makes a sound when it goes, but that doesn’t mean you are angry and about to run someone down. The bee, too, makes a sound when she goes, but that doesn’t mean she’s a raging lunatic. A buzz is not a warning, a threat, an emotion, or a political statement: it is just a sound. So buzz off.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

A honey bee rests her wings while she is sitting on a flower. Foraging honey bees make a characteristic buzz, pause, buzz, pause as they travel from bloom to bloom. © Rusty Burlew.
A honey bee rests her wings while she sits on a flower. Foraging honey bees make a characteristic buzz, pause, buzz, pause as they travel from bloom to bloom. © Rusty Burlew.

Comments

Tom
Reply

Rusty, have you read the NYT today about the decrease in bee colonies? It is nicely done and if you haven’t seen it, I will try to send it to you.
Tom

Rusty
Reply

Tom,

No, I haven’t seen it.

Rusty
Reply

Tom and John,

That is the best statement of the colony collapse problem I have ever read, and extending the argument to human life is exactly on point. I only wish I could say it so well.

Alan Chmiel
Reply

Rusty,

Added a full frame of brood frames to the two hives we talked about on Monday. How long should it take for them to raise a queen?

On of the hives had three frames of drone cells.

Will keep you updated.

Alan Chmiel

Rusty
Reply

Alan,

It takes a while. From newly laid egg to a laying queen takes about 24 days if all goes perfectly. If bad weather interferes with her mating flights, it can take even longer. If the bees raised a queen from a young larva they were given, that can knock 3 or 4 days off the total. For that reason, I usually start looking for eggs at three weeks.

John
Reply

Rusty and Tom,

Thank you both for the great articles!

Rusty
Reply

Thanks, John.

Emily
Reply

Very true. When bees do start getting irritated, the buzzing sounds in the hive change and seem to take on more of a whistle or a deeper whine. You can certainly hear the change compared to the normal getting on with things buzz.

Lindy
Reply

Hi Rusty, Can you tune into BBC 2 programmes where you live? (English state owned tv) They are showing a series called Hive Alive with a great deal of state of the art photography and technical wonders. One that particularly impressed me was where it was made to be heard that plants produce a sound signal wave that reacts with the electrical static on bee hairs. When a plant has depleted nectar she produces a different sound than after a 100 second lapse between bee visits when her nectar is available again. Apparently this is for both their sakes. When you have 2,000 flowers to visit it’s no good going into one that only has a bit o’ th’ gud stuff. I cannot get BBC 2 here in NL but I did manage to watch it on a “watch-series-online” link and I think that is US based. I just typed in Hive Alive and hey presto…… Thank you for making the NY Times link available to us all and thank you too John for that as well.

Rusty
Reply

Hey Lindy,

Thanks. I will try to find the link.

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