As It Happens

Honeybee queens 'quack' and 'toot' — and scientists say they finally know why

You may have learned in school that bees buzz and ducks quack — but it turns out it’s a little more complicated than that.

Researchers at Nottingham Trent University use vibration detectors to decode the secret language of bees

Worker bees in Germany surround a queen, who is marked with a yellow spot on her back. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
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Transcript

You may have learned in school that bees buzz and ducks quack — but it turns out it's a little more complicated than that.

Honeybee queens, when they first emerge from their eggs and form new colonies, are known to make two distinct noises — "toots" and "quacks."

Now scientists at Nottingham Trent University believe they have decoded this strange bee language, which appears to be how the queens communicate with their workers in order to co-ordinate their release.

"It's yet another piece of evidence showing the social behaviour of this animal," Martin Bencsik, the study's lead scientist, told As It Happens host Carol Off.

The study was reviewed by Canadian bee expert Otis Gard from the University of Guelphand published Tuesday in the journal Scientific Reports. 

'Release us!' demand quacking queens 

Queen bees are raised in specially constructed cells, and fed an exclusive diet of royal jelly, a protein-rich secretion produced by young workers.

When it's time the virgin queens to hatch, the workers must release them from their cells so they can swam off with their new colonies in tow.  That's where the tooting and quacking comes in.

The researchers believe that quacking queens tells the workers to release them. But once a queen emerges, she then starts tooting to indicate that the other queens should be left in their wax prisons. 

That's because when two virgin queens are released at the same time, they have a tendency to fight to the death. 

In this clip from Nottingham Trent University, you first hear a queen bee "tooting" to signal that she is free, followed by the sounds of several other queens "quacking" to demand their own release. 0:16

"The queen tooting would say something like, if she was speaking English, she would say, 'Keep the quacking queens captive,'" Bencsik said. 

"And the quacking queens, they are telling the colony, 'Release us! Release us!' Something like that."

Talking to the group, not to each other 

The researchers came to this conclusion by listening to the bees with ultra-sensitive vibration detectors.

They observed that once a liberated queen forms a colony and swarms away, the tooting stops and the workers set about releasing another quacking queen.  

"According to our measurements, they keep quacking for three to four hours and then a tooting starts again in the colony," he said.

This process repeats itself until all the queens have been released. 

Martin Bencsik, a professor from Nottingham Trent University, observes a swarm of bees who built a hive inside his cello. (Submitted by Martin Bencsik)

Bencsik says it's long been known that bees make this cacophony of noises during the swarming process, but not why. 

The prevailing theory, he said, was that the competitive queens were "sizing each other up."

"I think the breakthrough is to suggest that the signals are actually a social communication signal to the society, not between two individuals," he said.

"That is what's surprising."

Bencsik says this research peels back another layer in the complex communication system employed by bees.

"Honeybees are social creatures. They take decisions not because of one individual. They take decisions based on a group decision, a democratic decision," he said

"If you want the society to take a decision democratically, you absolutely need a communication system in place, one which is very efficient. And we think it's yet another such communication system that we have revealed and highlighted."

And the practical takeaway for beekeepers? When you hear tooting and quacking, leave the hive alone.

"Don't mess with it," Bencsik said. "It is an important internal communication system which affects the entire colony, not just two queens. You are perturbing the whole colony attempting to take decisions as a group."


Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Sarah Cooper and Sarah Jackson. 

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