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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.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

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, but that doesn't mean they're angry.
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, but that doesn’t mean they’re angry. © 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.

Daniel
Reply

Rusty,

When a guard bee buzzes me, I have no doubt from the sound I hear that I need to leave or suit up or get stung. My choice.

I can stand in the major flight path to the hives and have hundreds of bees cruise by, curving around my head on their way to our fountain, and the sound is not the same as one pissed off (or maybe pensive, or no emotions) guard bee trying to move me away. Am I projecting?

Rusty
Reply

Daniel,

Still, I think it’s the change in their flight pattern and path you are hearing. Instead of flying right by, a bee trying to intimidate you may circle, heat butt, and dive at you. All that activity will sound different than a bee flying past, which has more of a doppler component.

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.

Const
Reply

Interesting point, but although sound is just a vibration in its nature, bees as collective and individuals really do make different sounds in different circumstances (as does your car per analogy).

We can use it as a clue what is happening.

For example:

– queenless colony after several days makes slightly different sound (faster, more irregular buzzing) since individual bees are acting differently than if colony has her majesty.
– If you tap or knock hive in the evening you’ll hear gentle “hum” in response that can also differ by colony size or state.
– If you take stethoscope and listen without tapping you can really hear different sounds.
– Bees buzzing in fruit tree and swarming also make yet another distinctive sound
– Orientational flight of bees in front of hive another
– plundering makes another and so on…

As for “angry” bee, it is interesting philosophical debate that can lead all the way up to questions like: “can robots be hungry if we program them to search for wall outlet each time their battery is half depleted?”

But back to buzzing, a bee fanning and trying to cool down comb is mostly stationary sound source, regular bee flying by it’s own does it also rather straightforward or by slightly curved path usually going away from us, bee scooping from flowers makes small “jumps” between them… These are all rather “calm” buzzings since no abrupt changes of position of sound source is happening. It is either constant or fading away. Even when swarming or orientating, they are usually not centered around us (but around hive or tree branch) so we perceive it as relatively stationary sound source.

Now, defending bee is entirely different story since it is circling around you, often plummeting towards you, hitting you, then following you, circling again, hitting you again, trying to find best place to sting you so it’s path is quite irregular, but usually in small circles around your head with fast closing and retreating intervals that due to Doppler effect we perceive as quite specific sound… One we can recognize, and since we connect it with attack/defend pattern we anthropomorphic it with our own feelings (“mad”, “angry”, “worried”, “aggravated” or even “confused” comes to mind). Granted, sometimes you can get stung by a bee without all the fuss and prelude,but it is rare case.

Finally about anthropomorphic part…

Our communication is rather limited…

And in attempt to make it faster while remaining quite understandable we say to a fellow beekeeper something like: “this nectar dearths is making all my bees extremely angry when I inspect hives…”

We could, also, say something to the effect of: “this nectar death is making all my bees more inclined to fly from frames and circle around my head producing pheromones that will incite more than usual median number of bees joining them in attempt to chase away me as perceived potential threat to their nest while some of them will try to sting me and will collide with my veil and outfit”. That could be more accurate, and could be made even more accurate…

But than I couldn’t identify with first sentence of your post:
“I am guilty when it comes to anthropomorphizing bees.”

I am as well and I think that any beekeeper that listens to the bees is also.

Thanks for great posts Rusty, they, as usual, make me think, and since English is not my native language I apologize in advance for any translation related misunderstandings / grammar and alike.

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