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Creating a buzz in animal behaviour.

At NTU, our research is listening in new ways and hearing nature’s answers to our questions.

By placing ultra-sensitive vibrational sensors into the hearts of beehives, our researcher Martin Bencsik has discovered that queen bees ‘toot’ loudly to let worker bees know they need to protect a new mobile queen from rivals.

Held captive in their queen cells by the workers to prevent infighting, the rival ‘virgin queens’ then respond to this tooting with a ‘quack’ – which Martin says is the signal to the colony that they are ready and waiting to replace the queen as soon as she leaves.

The non-invasive investigation also heard clues which may help to predict honeybee swarming and shed new light on the reasons for the queen bees ‘piping’ in the hive.

This fascinating work has reimagined research in the area of honeybee swarming. It has also demonstrated the complexity and the beauty of chemical and acoustical communication among honeybees and given us greater insight into their ability to coherently behave as a colony.

This research area was expanded upon for a submission to the Engineering Unit of Assessment in the Research Excellence Framework (REF) 2021, where 98% of the research was rated as world-leading or internationally excellent.


In our research laboratory at Nottingham Trent University in physics and mathematics, we are involved with magnetic resonance imaging or MRI, and at the time I was doing research with these machines I got involved with one of the last hurdles to overcome with these machines, which is the sound and vibrations they produce when you have an MRI scan done to you.

So I studied the physics of the propagation and the measurement of sound and vibrations in the MRI scanner, and I soon translated this research in applying it to honeybee hives that you can see behind me.

In order to monitor the vibrations taking place inside the colony, we use a specialised sensor called an accelerometer. It is a little cube of about a centimetre across made of metal, and we take a colony, we open it, we take the central frame, we press the accelerometer into the honeycomb, and then we close the colony, we close the box, and monitoring the signal coming from the accelerometer we get an insight into the world of vibrational communication that is taking place inside the colony. Day and night every day of the week, every week of the year.

Once the accelerometer is in the honeycomb we start picking up the vibrations. Some of them come from the buzzing of the bees all the bees in the colony. Other vibrational signals we pick up are pulsed and they passing the vicinity of the sensor. It could be a signal coming from a worker bee, or it could be a pulsed signal coming from a queen bee, particularly in the springtime, in the swarming season in April and May.

Queen bees are producing very strong and long pulsed vibration. There are two types of queen bee pulsed vibrations. There's the tooting and the quacking, and when you witness them you can't help yourself interpreting them as a duet between two queens.

So for a long time the belief was that these signals were communication taking place between two queens.

And our publication from last year provides a strong evidence that these signals are actually communication taking place between the queens and the entire colony of worker bees.

So in the coming years we are hoping to exhaust the collection of false vibration that we are capable of discriminating from our measurements of vibrations. We know that a lot of these signals take place in very specific circumstances, and by measuring the long-term statistics of the repertoire of different vibrational signals taking place on the honeycomb, we hope to provide the beekeeper a very specific insight into the activity that is taking place inside the colony.

Sustainable Futures

This project is drawn from the strategic research theme of Sustainable Futures.

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Centre for Animal, Rural and Environmental Sciences Research

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