Abuzz about you: do bees get angry?
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’ve 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 get 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, the beesa 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.
Tiny wings make loud noise
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. And 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 says bees get 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.
Drawing premature conclusions
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.