Queen Piping

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From delicate toots to resonant quacks, queen bee sounds help the colony communicate. And, to the beekeeper who understand them, they offer some hints on colony conditions. Prior to opening a hive, hearing queen bee vocalizations tells me that something special is happening inside. I must go slowly and investigate with care. Though we don’t understand everything about queen bee piping, these sounds do provide clues that can help us have thriving colonies.

Queen honey bee on comb with workers and sounds indicators.

The role of the queen honey bee is one that can not be fulfilled by other colony members. Bees communicate in many ways. It should come as no surprise that nature has provided her with special ways to communicate.

Queen Bee Piping: Tooting and Quacking

Queen piping (pipe-ing) is a series of sounds made by queen honey bees. Louder than any sound made by a worker bee – these signals are achieved by rapid wing vibrations (only one of many vibration signals in a hive).

It it rather easy to notice this sound once you have some experience. Though the toot does sound a bit like a cricket chirp. It is rare to hear a mated queen make piping sounds (unless it is a new queen placed into a hive).

You are most likely to hear queen piping in situations involving surplus queens. This means during the swarming season or during the process of colony requeening.

2 Types of Piping Sounds

  • toots
  • quacks
Newly emerged queen on cell and young queen honey bee on comb.

Tooting

The tooting sound of a queen bee is very distinctive – a series of short, repetitive chirps or toots. Tooting occurs when a virgin queen has emerged from a queen cell. It consists of air-borne sound and vibrations.

She presses her thorax down onto the comb and pulses her wing muscles. The wings do not flap. The comb amplifies the vibrations or sound. Tooting has been measured at a pulse of 1 second duration (400 Hz) followed by a few shorter pulses.

When a bee swarm leaves the hive, the old queen usually goes with the prime swarm. Multiple capped queen cells are left behind to provide new queen candidates for the old colony. The first virgin queen to emerge will make a “tooting sound”.

I have witnessed this on many occasions with a newly emerged queen and still some queen cells holding adult queens.

Is this done to declare her dominance over other virgins waiting in their cells. It may be a battle cry. Perhaps, this queen piping signal inhibits the candidates from leaving their cells.

This would make them easier to find and kill – which is the goal of the new queen. There can only be one.

Or, the tooting sound may alert workers to the prescience of an emerged queen. They may choose to protect those still inside the cells – delay their release (in case they need them). We don’t really know. But, tooting signals are often followed by quacking.

Queen cells containing adult honey bee queens capable of quacking.

Quacking

Quacking is a lesser-known queen bee piping sound. It is performed by virgin queens still inside their wax cells. Quacking signals are believed to be accomplished by wing muscle vibrations as well.

It consists of a series of short pulses at a lower frequency (200 Hz to ~350 Hz)- they are still enclosed in a wax cell. Perhaps they “quack” in response to the tooting signal of another queen.

Are they asking their sister workers to protect them? Or does a “tooting signal” followed by the absence of “quacking” mean that no more captive queens? So many unknowns.

What it Means for Beekeepers

Beekeepers should always be alert for the different sounds of queen piping. In many cases, it means that you have more than one queen in the hive. This is not a bad thing – it is natural. In time one will be left to rule the colony.

However, it is always a good idea to recheck the colony at a later date to ensure that the hive is not queenless. And, that succession has been achieved.

FAQs

What is the purpose of queen bee vocalizations?

Queen bee vocalizations are a form of communication between the queen and other members of the honey bee colony.

How can beekeepers recognize queen piping, tooting, and quacking?

Beekeepers can differentiate between queen vocalizations by listening for their distinct characteristics. Tooting is high-pitched chirps; while queen quacking is low-frequency, pulsating sounds.

What do queen bee vocalizations indicate about hive health?

Queen bee vocalizations can provide valuable insights into hive dynamics and health. Hearing unusual sounds may indicate normal changes in the hive or a potential issue that needs attention.

How can beekeepers respond to queen bee piping?

Beekeepers can respond to queen piping by closely monitoring hive conditions. Perform appropriate hive inspections to ensure the presence of a healthy mated queen.

Final Words

To those with less experience, differentiating between queen piping: tooting, and quacking can be difficult. While these vocalizations share similarities in their rhythmic patterns and frequency, each serves distinct purposes and occurs in specific situations within the hive environment. Learning to be observant of any sounds, smells or visual changes in the hive helps us learn more about bee management.

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2 Comments

  1. Sandra Newton says:

    Hi! This is my second season as a beekeeper and I can’t seem to get my bees to make honey in the supers. The hives seem healthy with limited number of hive beatle present and no sign of Varrona mites, although I’ve been told they are always there by veteran beekeepers. I’ve tried spraying sugar water on the frames in the super to get them interested and they do go up into the box but don’t create comb or attempt to store honey other than what is needed to feed brood. I’ve tried having only 1 deep brood box with a super on top and that only made them swarm. What am I doing wrong? All the hives produce lots of brood and I’m splitting hives often so they seem to be happy.

  2. Charlotte Anderson says:

    I’m sorry to hear that Sandra. First let me say that your bees “want” to make honey. It is a very bee-ish thing to do. There are many reasons for a lack of production. Read my article on Why are My Bees not Making Honey and maybe that will help.