Thomas Seeley on honeybee communication - The Bee Hive as a Honey Factory

A presentation by Thomas Seeley where he outlines a few different communication signals used by the bees to effectively and efficiently distribute the number of bees taking on different tasks in honey making.

Here is a quick overview:

Shake signal - Tells bees in the hive that they need more foragers.

Waggle dance - Informs bee about where to find nectar

Tremble dance - Communicates a need for more bees in the hive to work at collecting and storing the nectar brought in by the foragers.

The beep signal - If bees that are Tremble dancing encounter waggle dancers they may give them the beep signal as a way of letting them know they should stop.


One of the first things you are likely to see when setting up a new hive are forager bees on orientation flights. Bees hovering in front of and circling around are learning the landmarks of the new location. An important step in ensuring they will be able to find their home again after searching for flowers. In the following video we see the activity around the hive after being placed in a new location. You can see a stark contrast in the flight patterns around the hive in the first few days as compared with the last day:

You will also see this behaviour in hives that are already established at a location as younger bees develop into foragers and leave the hive for the first time, typically, this behaviour will not be as pronounced as when moving a hive.

It is possible to confuse robbing with orientation flights. If the bees are young and fuzzy and they are peacefully entering and exiting the hive it is most likely orientation flights.

It's often stated that swarm cells are on the bottom of the frame and supersedure cells are built in the middle of the comb. This may not always be the case.

Emergency Queen Cells

Certainly, if a hive feels they are queenless they may try to make an emergency queen from eggs laid in regular worker comb. Emergency queen cells are structurally different than swarm or supercedure cells. You should be able to tell that the cell was made as an extension of a regular worker brood cell. We can see few examples of emergency cells in this photo:

Emergency queen cellsPhoto by: Shawn Caza / CC: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License

Queen Cells Used During Supercedure and Swarming Look Identical

But a hive will often have proper queen cups ready at the bottom or middle of frames which may be used for either supersedure or swarming. So, rather than the appearance or location of the cell, one must think about the wider context of the hive to figure out what the bees are trying to do.

For example, the following picture shows a frame with a good number of bees, a queen cup with an egg on the comb near the middle-right of the frame, and the brood nest in the process of being back-filled with nectar.

backfilling the broodnestPhoto by: Shawn Caza / CC: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License

Let Context be Your Guide

In the case above we are looking at a strong hive building up and things are getting congested between a queen that is laying well and increasing honey stores. It's best to assume the bees want to swarm. By the way, did you spot the current queen in the above photo? Click here for a closer look.

Other Beekeepers That Have Dispelled This Myth

Walt Wright has also suggested a larger quantity of queen cups/cells or queens in a wide variety of stages of development, with the first queen laid at the periphery and subsequent queens laid across the brood nest, is indicative of swarming. Whereas a supersedure tends to be just a few queens all laid at about the same time on the periphery of the brood nest.

The myths about supersedure cells run so deep in beekeeping literature that you still may not be convinced after having read both my post and the preceding link, so I will also offer you this link to David Cushman's perspective on the topic.


Last year a unique situation occured that allowed us to verify the comb spacing and cell size claims made in regards to naturally built comb.

natural comb extending two brood boxes

We hived a swarm while short on frames, by the time we returned it had prolifically built a few large combs extending into a second brood box. We added frames to the sides but left the wild combs on the inner cover all season.

natural comb built on inner cover

The comb spacing on the Hoffman frames typically used in the langstroth hive is about 35mm (1 3/8") and the cell size of standard foundation we use is 5.4mm.

large natural comb on inner cover

A quick glance at this hive was enough to make me feel the bees had decided on a much tighter spacing in some areas of their comb than our frames provide.

bee space 5

Unfortunately, the hive didn't make it through the winter, but this did give me the opportunity to measure a comb design little influenced by top bars, frames, starter strips or foundation.

comb spacing measurement on wild comb

First I measured the comb spacing. The above photo shows the distance from one comb's mid-rib to the next comb's mid-rib to be approximately 31mm. With the space between combs somewhere between 7-8mm.

The portion of the comb measured in the photo above is indicated by the white square in the following photo:

wider context of comb measured

With cell size it is often suggested to measure ten cells across and average the result, as bees tend to build cells of variable sizes. The following was measured in the lower-mid section of brood comb.

cell size on wild comb

I've heard many claim that bees coming from a hive with standard foundation will build 5.1mm cells in their next generation of combs. This experience seems to confirm that.

It is of course important to remember that comb spacing varies according to use. With honey and drone combs being wider than brood combs. The spacing used in a standard langstroth hive is really an attempt at averaging out the differences. I've been contemplating what frame spacing to use all winter while building hives for next season. Though I've seen the langstroth spacing work well enough, I'm tempted to see what advantage may come from using a variable spacing. It's become popular in the top bar community, where one can not rely on foundation for straight comb, to use 32mm (1 1/4") for the brood nest and 38mm (1 1/2") for honey combs. There is a great deal of speculation about the advantages of small cell bees and a corresponding tighter comb space. For me, the fact that bees seem to want to build cells and comb at various sizes when given the chance, seems like reason enough to set up the hive in such a way as to make this possible. Wish me luck.

One of the most readily observed bee communications. Look for one bee holding another bee with its front legs and shaking:

Notice how the held bee stands still while the signal is performed.

The behaviour is generally correlated with a need for more foragers, and possibly serves as an invitation for inactive or non-foraging bees to look for waggle dances and prepare for foraging. It is performed most often by foragers after their first few trips to a nectar source before they start waggle dances.

It has also been suggested that the shake signal might really represent a more general "it's time for a new activity" message, which is then interpreted according to context.

Bees have also been observed to perform the shaking signal on queens. Performing the signal than ceasing to do so just prior to a swarm, mating flight or on mature queen cells particularly after one queen has emerged and before an after swarm.

This behaviour has also been referred to as the vibration signal and once upon a time as the joy dance.

There are a few different reasons why bees will fan their wings. They may be regulating temperature and humidity in the hive.

On hot days you will see bees at the front entrance moving air through the hive and cooling things down. The hive in the video above had two full supers of nectar, the extra airflow from the fanning helps reduce the moisture content of the nectar and cure it into honey.

In other instances they may fan their wings to help broadcast the nasonov pheromone. A few of the bees with their nasonov gland exposed are identified in this photo:

Bees exposing their nasonov gland

Bees stick their butts in the air and bend the last segment of their abdomen down to expose the gland. Here's a video of the same hive as in the photo above. See how many bees you can spot sending out the pheromone.

In this case the fanning bees are calling back a large group of bees that had been shaken out of the hive during an inspection. Similar behaviour occurs at a hive entrance when a swarm first reaches a new home, after orientation flights, or when a queen departs on a mating flight. A few more details about the nasonov gland can be found here.

This quick follow up to my previous post on water sources will take a look at what we've been observing in the bee yard the last few weeks.

honey bee rain barrel drinking systemPhoto by: Shawn Caza / CC: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License

We've set up a rain barrel designed to let a trickle of water zig-zag across a wooden board into a bucket.

This year has been fairly dry, so although we add water to the barrel during each visit, the board is usually dry and the bucket has water with dead bees floating in it by our next visit. This was the case a few weeks ago, when we also noticed a large number of bees showing a preference for damp soil of a near by ditch to what we had tried to offer them.

So we decided to try filling the bucket with straw to make it more accessible. On our most recent visit, the ditch was dry and the bees were flocking to the straw filled bucket en masse.

As there were few dead bodies to be seen, I'd say it appears to be a fairly simple and effective option. The above videos also left me with the sense that the straw might be less messy than mud and speculate that it could also be saving them grooming time between sips of water.

Bees collect water for a variety of reasons. Its use in keeping the hive cool during hot summer days was rather intuitive to me. One spring I watched them visit a near by marsh in great numbers:

Why was water such a popular commodity during this cool time of year? It's thought that honey bees use water to help dilute thick honey stores in the spring as well as to aid in flushing out metabolic waste, and raising brood requires a certain amount of humidity.

The above video would suggest the algae both provided a good safe landing pad for the bees and held a good amount of moisture for the bees to drink from.

I also noticed other bees sucking up moisture from the mulch of a recently irrigated tree nursery:

Other bees did well on wet rocks:

bee on rock

But elsewhere the bees seemed to have had a fair bit of trouble:

drowning bees

These drownings may have been due to less stable terrain around the deeper water, miscalulating a landing, wind or even a result of dealing with other antagonistic insects:

It's no wonder beekeepers often take the trouble to try make their bees a specialized drinking spot.

If you'd prefer your bees to use one source of water over another, a consideration particularly relevant to urban beekeepers who might operate near public pools, be sure to get them used to your source from the start of the season. It's thought to be difficult to stop bees from visiting a water source once they have gotten used to it.

For an unusual approach to keeping moisture in the hive in dry climates, check out the insightful experiment of providing water within the hive outlined here by Dennis Murrell of Bee Natural.


Your bee's got personality! | University of Illinois

New research suggest personality differences between individual bees in a hive. The scientists looked for a pre-disposition to novelty seeking by looking at which bees took on scout jobs. They found certain bees 3.4 times more likely to take on these jobs and linked this behaviour to the same genes that regulate novelty seeking in vertabrates.

The original paper is here, but you need a subscription to 'Science' access it.

When multiple Queens hatch you might expect them to battle it out, however, in some cases extra queens may simply be thrown out of the hive.

virgin queen with nurse beePhoto by: Shawn Caza / CC: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License

We found this queen in the tray of a screened bottom board approximately two weeks after two chewed open supersedure cells were found. We held onto this queen till we found that the hive did in fact have a healthy queen busy laying eggs.

We wondered if one of her front legs had been injured as she seemed to keep it raised, but other than she seemed perfectly healthy if unattractive to the hive(just a lone nurse bee showed her any interest).