Copper Bee Apiary

A garden apiary in Whittlesford, Cambridge, UK - honey bees and their beekeeper Hilary van der Hoff.

Filtering by Category: Sounds

Roar of the Bees

We had a good spring for honey, but it seems to be a poor summer. The supers are light - very little honey in them. And the colonies are relatively small. It used to be that the bees would overflow when I opened a hive - not so any more. Now I can lift out frames without even having to nudge many bees out of the way.

With autumn on the way, the colonies are shrinking fast. You can tell this by looking at the brood frames even at a single point in time. A brood nest full of eggs and young larvae indicates an expanding colony, whereas a nest that has more capped brood than young larvae indicates that the queen's rate of egg laying is decreasing. In the Pond Hive brood box, almost all the brood is capped - I had to search hard to find eggs and larvae. The current capped brood will emerge as new adult bees that will become autumn foragers, but there will be fewer and fewer young bees coming through after that.

Varroa mites - and the viruses they transmit - may be reducing the strength of the colonies. In the Pond Hive I saw evidence of deformed wing virus, manifested by flightless bees with shrivelled white wings. So, despite the misfortune that befell the Cedar Hive when I last used this treatment, I applied MAQS to both the Pond Hive and the Copper Hive, as an anti-varroa measure.

The formic acid fumes from the MAQS are supposed to be able to get through brood cell cappings and damage mites within the cells as well as those loose in the hive. If you've not smelt formic acid, the closest thing would be to put your nose into a bag of salt 'n' vinegar crips and inhale sharply - it produces the same sort of nasal sting! And the bees clearly hate it. They react as soon as you take the MAQS out of the packet. After I put the MAQS on the Pond Hive brood box and closed up the hive, a loud roar could be heard from the brood box. The sound was probably caused by the workers fanning their wings to try to drive out the fumes - they had turned up their hive air conditioning to maximum.

I took this sound recording, holding the microphone near the hive:

(As usual, whenever I do a sound recording, someone flies an aircraft overhead.)

Then - brace your ears - I put the microphone under the mesh floor of the hive to hear the bees more clearly:

Not much chance of hearing aircraft over that.

I hope the treatment does the colonies more good than harm, but I'm sure it doesn't feel that way to them at the moment.


It's 7 degrees Celcius (45 F) outside, and even though we've had some sunshine there haven't been many bees flying from the hives today. It's too cold and anyway there's very little forage available at this time of year. So all is quiet. I went out on to the gin terrace and put a stethoscope to the wall of the Disc Hive. I listened. At once I became aware of how noisy it actually is round here - a light aircraft was passing overhead, traffic was rumbling, and then for good measure a train went past. The bees were probably huddled inside trying to get some peace.

I couldn't hear anything that sounded like inner hive noise. I tried knocking on the hive wall to see if that would ruffle the bees into making a sound. But at that point another train went past. And the aircraft was still puttering on. Things were the same when I tried the Cedar Hive.

So I went out into the garden. I put the stethoscope against the front of the Copper Hive brood box, and knocked. There was an answer! A susurrus rose and fell. I went to the Pond Hive and tried the same - another answering susurrus!

Feeling encouraged, and having got my ear in, I returned to the Disc Hive and Cedar Hive and retried. Yes - both answered.

It's a quiet sound, a bit like a gust of wind stirring the twigs at the top of a tree. I guess it's a rustle of wings as the bees react to the disturbance. I will leave them in peace now. I am waiting for the first day when it is warm enough to open the hives, when I will revert the hives to their "summer configuration" (that is, a super above the brood box rather than vice versa) and at the same time I will insulate the rooves. They have insulation in spring, rather than in winter, because it is in spring that we get the big temperature fluctuations - warm days and frosty nights - and the bees must keep warm enough during the night to cover their growing brood. If they have to huddle back into their winter clusters, the brood will become chilled and die. On the other hand clustering in winter is their way of conserving energy and they need less honey to get through the cold months that way, so I don't insulate the hives for the onset of winter.

Writings, images and sound recordings are by the beekeeper unless otherwise indicated. All rights reserved.

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