Hive Song

The Idea

The singing hive with a plexiglass inner cover.

On several occasions I have heard an unusual sound coming from a beehive. This sound is:

  • unique
  • collectively produced
  • loud – the day sound can be heard at 100 feet
  • rare – only heard a few times in decades
  • has been heard by a few others worldwide

Here’s the sound:

If you have heard bees produce this sound, please let me know.

The Details

First Time

While working a large commercial bee yard, an unusual sound came from a hive. Planning a careful hive inspection, the hive was inadvertently disturbed and the sound stopped. When inspected, nothing unusual was found.

That sound was so loud and unique, it didn’t occur to me that the bees produced it. I thought some critter was inside the hive and had escaped.

Second Time

Years later, the sound was heard again. This time, the situation was different. Unlike the first encounter, where a single hive was one of thousands worked, never to be seen again, these queen rearing hives were worked every few days. And they were known individually.

Again, thinking a critter was inside, I tried to find it. While gently removing the cover, the sound stopped.

So, keeping an eye on the hive entrance to thwart an escape, frames were carefully removed from the top super, inspected, and set aside. Then each frame was inspected inside the top super.

Nothing! So, the empty top super was removed, up ended, and set on the ground.

The sound resumed but was quieter. This time it was coming from the unexplored hive body.

The process was repeated, again watching for any escapees. And as before, the sound stopped. Nothing unusual was found.

Thinking the critter escaped,the hive was set back together. Then an unusual thing happened. The sound, although much fainter, started again. It came from that first super sitting on the ground.

Ha Ha, I thought, I’ve got you now!

So, that super was carefully lifted and set on top of an adjacent hive. The sound stopped.

It was carefully inspected again without removing any frames. Again nothing.

So, I watched and waited. After 15 silent minutes, I decided to set the hive together.

Then, as I was putting the hive together, the sound started. It was quiet and localized in a small area of the bottom hive body. I set the super on it. The sound’s volume increased. It gradually spread throughout the bottom hive body and into the lower portions of the top box. The bees were making the sound! Amazing creatures I thought and wondering what the sound meant, I closed up the hive.

Caught It – At Last

A half dozen years passed. I’d set up a hive, with a plexiglass inner cover, in my backyard. It was monitored several times a day.

After returning from work, I heard that same sound again. I was 75 feet away from the hive. And sure enough, my plex hive was making it.

Carefully backing away from the hive to avoid disturbing them, I searched frantically for a way to record the sound. What happened to all those old cassette tape recorders anyway? Surely, my teenage son, who is steeped in electronic gadgetry, has a means of recording sound.

Not so. I couldn’t believe it! Would I have time to rush to a box store and buy something before the bees switched gears?

Then, I remember a feature on my digital camera. I had never used it and couldn’t even remember how to use it. The camera could record small video clips with sound. So, out came the camera and the manual. I carefully set the camera on top of the hive. The recording didn’t do justice to the sound. I think the daytime sound overwhelmed the camera’s miniscule, directional microphone. But it was the best I could do.

Once recorded, I carefully removed the hive cover to expose the plexiglass inner cover. Now I had a chance to see the bees making the sound without disturbing them.

The sound abated for a moment. Then it started in the hive’s lower areas and gradually spread. No unusual bee behavior or activity were observed through the plex inner cover. I decided to just watch and not intrude into the hive. No more looking for strange critters. 🙂

The bees:

  • starting making this sound about mid-morning, on a hot summer day
  • were between nectar flows
  • foraging was minimal
  • continued producing the sound for about 24 hours

At night, the volume decreased and its staccato like frequency was reduced. By early next morning the volume and frequency were back up to their earlier daytime levels.

After a day, I was embolden and decided to gently knock on the hive’s side. A few quick knocks would reduce the sound’s volume, near the knock. But it would gradually return. I tried this in several different areas of the hive. Then left them alone.

By mid-afternoon that second day, the sound stopped. And I haven’t heard it, in any hive, since then.

Bees Singing

So, here it is. Listen carefully. I’m a little dismayed the bee sound, which is so loud, sounds muted in this recording night time recording. The microphone on the camera was directional.

Have you ever heard anything like this?

The day time sound is a little higher pitched and cycles at a faster beat.

-bW

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17 responses to “Hive Song”

  1. arumdev says:

    I’ve just heard this sound! and wondered what it was, a google search led me here. I am a brand new beekeeper, built a couple of Warré hives a few weeks ago and collected a small, suspected cast swarm 3 days ago. I’ve been sitting watching the bees a lot in the days since as they get settled in. Yesterday I managed to see some mostly obscured drawn comb, and today I saw one be returning with pollen. Anyway, as I was sat there watching (about 2 feet away), trying to spot more pollen coming in, I heard a faint but distinct ‘drilling’/’rattling’ sound coming from the hive. I went around the back for a closer listen and managed to make a recording. The sound is similar to your recordings, I would say slightly higher frequency but not continuous, coming in shorter bursts mostly of under a second but some lasted several seconds. I’ll try to get the sound uploaded somewhere and post a link.

    [ADDENDUM] The above post was attempted a few days ago, but I had trouble with the captcha and couldn’t get it to post to the site. I have since hear the sound again today and am curious to know if you’ve learnt anything more about the sound since writing this blog post?

    • -bW says:

      Hi Arumdev

      Congratulations, you are one of a handful of people who have heard the sound. Absolutely nothing is known about it. Did you have a link for the recording? I’d like to hear it.

      Arumdev, thanks for the note.

      -bW

  2. Keith says:

    Maybe it is an obsolete genetic feature that returns in certain lines sometimes. Maybe its the bees arguing or debating, perhaps as to the merits of a given queen or her potential replacement. Perhaps its when the workers have to tell the lazy drones to get out of the supers and start getting busy. I bet if bayer had a hive like this they would gas it immediately and autopsy the bees.

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