Researchers have listened in on newly hatched queen honeybees to learn how a queen bee communicates with her brood—and prevents rivals to the throne
Birds do it. Bees do it. Even fleas (overeducated or otherwise) do it. What is it? They communicate with each other to share valuable information. And researchers have discovered that newly hatched queen bees send out a specific signal to indicate to worker bees that they have a new queen and that they should seal up any potential rivals.
Most species of bees have only one queen per hive, including the European honeybee (Apis mellifera), the most familiar species. Once the queen bee has staked her claim to the throne, she’s the only female in the hive to reach sexual maturity, and she’s the one who lays all the eggs that will go on to become male drones who mate with the queen, female workers, or potentially the next monarch.
In the wild, beehives continually grow, eventually becoming too large. Consequently, the queen and about half of the worker population will leave the hive to start a new colony, a process known as swarming.
Prior to departure, the queen bee will lay several eggs in peanut-shaped “queen cells,” which are then covered with beeswax. Once they’re ready to emerge, the would-be queen bees chew their way out of their cells.
A research team from England, France, and Belgium embedded sensitive accelerometers (which measure vibrations) into beehives to remotely eavesdrop on newly emerging queen bees. The first one to do so, known as a virgin queen, will send out a series of “tooting” signals. As described in the researchers’ paper in the journal Nature, “During each tooting sequence, the queen presses her thorax onto the comb and vibrates her wing muscles in the folded position.” The queen emits a series of one-second long toots, followed by several shorter ones. These sounds are broadcast to the entire hive via vibrations through the honeycomb.
Other virgin queens still encased in their queen cells will respond with even shorter, lower frequency “quacks.” Worker bees then seal up their cells, inhibiting the ability of these virgin queens to emerge immediately while the new queen asserts her domination.
“The tooting indicates to the colony the presence of a free-roaming queen and motivates [the worker bees] to keep the quacking queens captive,” says Martin Bencsik, an associate professor at Nottingham Trent University in England and the lead researcher on the report.
Eventually, the other queens will emerge. “It is possible that two or more queens end up being released simultaneously, and sometimes they fight to the death,” says Bencsik. More often, a superfluous queen will head off with a group of bees in an “afterswarm” to start a colony of their own.
Long live the queen! Toot toot, hurray!