Honeybee Behaviour


Honeybee behaviour is a phenomenon portrayed by honeybees in the course of their daily activities in a colony. Some are genetically influenced while others are dependent on external stimuli. It is very important for a beekeeper to understand and utilise behaviour patterns presented by bees for better management aspects.


  • Honeybees have an effective communication
  • The basic modes of communication in bee language are similar to those of man e.g. the use of various stimuli such as light, chemical and physical that can be perceived by specific sensory organs.  

Needs for effective communication

Communication in honeybees is very important mainly for serving the following purposes:-

  • Mutual protection –To inform each other of the dangers around them.
  • Search  for Food – Inform each other on the source of food
  • Care of the young ones
  • To accomplish mating
  • For comb construction

Types of communication:

Chemical communication

  • This type of communication is highly developed in social insects e.g. honeybees. 
  • It is sometimes referred to as communication by “pheromones”.  
  • Its used in honeybees to communicate needs such as mutual protection, mating and search for food.
  • Pheromones are chemical substances secreted from certain glands and discharged externally.  
  • They convey information and illicit responses or definite reactions by other individuals of the same species.  

Common Honeybee Pheromones



Mechanical communication:

The mechanical communication in honeybees can be grouped in two categories:


  • Using the sense of touch the bees can communicate using their antennae e.g. in “mutual begging” by touchng her partner’s head with the antennae.  The bees also use their antennae in tracing the dancing bee.


  •  It has been observed that forager bees do not communicate by dancing only but by sound signals as well.  During the tail-waggle dance, the bee dance during the short straight run produces peculiar sounds of low frequency (250 cycles/sec) which are picked by the follower (bee) through the antennae and forelegs.

Optical communication

  • This type of communication is rarely used by the honeybees since the inside of the nest is always dark.  This type of communication is used by the bees during dances.

 Other forms of communication


Some bees spend about 2/3 of their time either resting or wondering through the anterior of the nest, the activity that is referred to as patrolling.  For patrolling to be an effective form of communication, the bees should:

  • Show a social behaviour among them.
  • Have a high ability of performing several duties.
  • Have the urge to perform extra duties
  • Always be alert.

Mutual Begging

Liquid food sharing or tropholaxis is the exchange of liquid food among the members of the same colony.  This plays a key role in the social organisation of most species of social insects.

In a honeybee colony food is passed from

  • Worker to worker
  • Worker to drone
  • Worker to queen.

Transfer of food between bees starts when one of them “begs” or “offers” food to the other, during feeding the continuously striking of each other facilitates orientation and communication with each other.

Food sharing serves as a means of communication concerning the availability of food and water.  It also serves as a media of transmission of queen substance.

Honeybee Dances

  • Bees communicate through dance to indicate food source, its location and quantity. 
  • There are other dances associated with hive cleaning, alarm, massage and joy. 
  • Dances are performed inside the hive on the surface of the comb.  

Dances associated with food

There are two types of dances bees make to communicate food source. The type of dance depends on the distance of food from the hive.

  • The Round dance
  • The Tail waggle dance

Round Dance:

  • Bees perform this dance when food source is less than 100m from the hive. A bee runs in a small circle that covers a single cell. 
  • She runs approximately over six adjacent cells, suddenly reversing direction and then turning again to her original course and so on.  
  • Between two reversals there are often one or two complete circles, frequently only ¾ or ½ of a circle.
  • Dance may be completed after one or two reversals or may go on 20 or more times after which it stops abruptly often to be resumed once or twice by the same bee at the same place or elsewhere in the nest.  
  • Foragers tend to follow the dancing bee putting their antennae on her abdomen. A drop of nectar from the dancing bee can indicate the food flavour. 
  • They search for specific odour of the nectar and respond selectively to this odour while searching in the field.
  • Consequently the recruits get excited, they leave the dance, clean themselves, feed on honey in preparation for the foraging trip ahead and then within a minute leave the hive.


The Round Dance: The upper worker bee is dancing in the pattern indicated and is followed and antennated by other workers

The Round Dance: The upper worker bee is dancing in the pattern indicated and is followed and antennated by other workers

  Tail Waggle Dance

  • Performed when source of food is more than 100m away from the hive
  • Announces the food potentiality.
  • Distance to the food source or direction 
  • Direction which is determined by: – straight tail waggle dance – orients the direction between the sun and the food source.

How the dance is done

  • The bee runs straight ahead for a short distance on the vertical comb surface and turns round.  
  • Waggles her abdomen and repeats the dancing and runs another semi-circle to complete the circle in the opposite direction.  
  • This is roughly circular dance consisting of two halves – “the figure eight”.  
  • The straight run is emphasised by vigorous shaking of the abdomen from side to side and usually by a buzzing sound made by the flight muscle and skeleton but without noticeable wing beating. 
  • The waggle dance differs with different species.


The tail-wagging dance: The upper worker is dancing in the pattern indicated; she is followed and antennated by other workers.

The tail-wagging dance: The upper worker is dancing in the pattern indicated; she is followed and antennated by other workers.

Other types of Dances

Alarm Dances:

  • An example of this dance is mainly performed when there is contaminated food source.  
  • The bees run in spiral or irregular zigzags and vigorously shake their abdomens sideways. 
  • Their flight activities drop completely and the neighbouring bees begin to respond.

Cleaning Dance:

  • Particles of dust, hairs or other foreign materials on the worker bee body stimulate the “cleaning dance”.  This consists of a rapid stamping of legs and a rhythmic swinging of the body to the sides.  
  • At the same time the bee rapidly raises and lowers the body and cleans around the basis of the wings with the middle pair of legs.  
  • Such a shaking dance may be observed anytime in the hive.  
  • The mandibles are used to clean the thorax and the abdomen of the dancer.  
  • As soon as the dancer feels the touch of the cleaner, it stops dancing

Joy dance (Dorso-Ventral-Abdominal Vibration)

  • This dance is observed only when conditions in the hive are optimum. 
  • A bee places its front leg on some part of the body of the other bee and make five or six shaky movement up and down with abdomen slightly swinging forward and backward. 
  • She crawls further and repeats the movement.

Massage dance

  • This dance begins when one of the bees on the comb bends its head in a peculiar way and neighbouring bees get excited and immediately investigate her using the antennae, mandibles and front legs, cleaning their antennae periodically. 
  • The bee unfolds the entire tongue, extends the second pair of legs and constantly cleans the tongue with her front legs stroking it from above downwards.
  • This phenomenon is usually observed during the cold season.


  • Stinging should be considered as a defensive behaviour instead of a form of aggression.  
  • Bees normally react in a definite pattern of behaviour to specific stimuli associated with an intruder. 
  • Guard bees stay at the entrance watching for any enemy that dares provoke the colony. 
  • Once one attacks many others follow. They do this to protect the brood and honey by stinging. 
  • Once the sting is deposited, alarm pheromone is suddenly liberated from the stinging apparatus.
  • It lingers at the stinging site after the bee has departed, thus exciting further stinging responses.
  • Colony defence behaviour is one of the most significant kinds of activity not only because bees are able to protect themselves very effectively but also because stinging behaviour is one of the greatest deterrent to keeping bees.  
  • Understanding of stinging behaviour can reduce the bee sting hazard.


  • This refers to a situation where scout bees leave the hive in search of new food sources or nesting sites. 
  • Worker bees scout for food outside the hive in all directions. 
  • The ones that find good forage go back to the hive and relay this information to the rest of the colony through a series of dances which recruit foragers to gather food for the colony until the source is exhausted.
  • Bees scout for new nests in preparation for swarming.   


  • This is a natural way by which honeybee colonies multiply or reproduce thus increasing their numbers. 
  • An increase in bee population causes overcrowding in the hive and thus the worker bees feel the need for rearing additional queens in preparation to divide and depart. 
  • Honeybees usually swarm after flowering seasons. 
  •  Swarming is an uneconomical to a beekeeper since part of the colony is lost. A swarm consists of a queen, a large number of worker bees and a few drones.

Causes of swarming

  • Overcrowding as a result of increase in the number of bees such that the queen substance is not sufficient to all the bees in the colony
  • Hereditary. Certain bee strains particularly in the tropics have an inherent tendency to swarm
  • Effects of the season – During the honey flow period, most of the comb cells are filled with honey thus reducing space in the hive. 

Signs of Swarming

  • Building of swarm cells along the edges of the combs.
  • Clustering of bees at the entrance of the hive.
  • Presence of many drone cells and drones.
  • Increased aggression – bees become more defensive and sting a lot.
  • Rocking movement of the bees. 
  • Bees produce a hissing sound.


Queen cells can be seen at the edges of this comb

Queen cells can be seen at the edges of this comb

Control measures:

  • Making Divisions – this reduces the population of bee colony thus creating more space in the hive. 
  • Destroying swarm cells so as to stop the emerging of new queens.
  • Switching positions of weak colonies with stronger ones so that the weaker colonies can receives the field bees from the stronger colonies.
  • De-queening and re-queening. This involves introduction of a queen with a less swarming tendency.
  • Clipping the wings of the queen as a temporary measure.

Once the honeybee swarm leaves the hive, they cluster either on a tree branch or a post and only stay for a few minutes or hours.  During this period worker bees scout for a better place, if there is an empty hive or catcher box they would occupy it; if not, they take off to unknown destination.  Such swarms can be trapped by farmers when spotted using a catcher box or a net since such bees are usually not aggressive.


This is a sudden departure of the whole colony of bees from a hive.


  • Due to pests, predators, diseases
  • Unfavourable weather conditions – floods, high temperature,
  • Poor management aspects e.g. over-harvesting, mishandling
  • Effect of fire and chemicals.

Signs of Absconding

There are no obvious prior signs but on opening the hive the beekeeper is likely to see an intact brood nest and food stores. 

Control Measures

  • This can be achieved by adoption of proper management practices that address the causative issues.
  • The beekeeper must create conducive environmental conditions and protect the bee colonies from physical and chemical disturbances.


This is a seasonal movement of the whole colony from one region to another due to adverse weather conditions. Migrating bees normally follow specific routes.


  • Scarcity of bee forage (nectar and pollen) and water.
  • Genetic factors 
  • Seasonal weather variations

Control Measures

  • Improvement of environmental conditions e.g. planting trees, provision of water.
  • Practicing migratory beekeeping
  • Feeding bees during adverse conditions


This is a natural behaviour of replacing a queen with a new one in a bee colony.


  • Failing queen due to old age, injury, sickness
  • Death of the old queen.
  • Accidental loss of queen.
  • Signs of Supercedure:
  • Presence of queen cells on the surface of a comb



Supercedure Cells

Supercedure Cells

  • Egg laying pattern of queen is irregular
  • Weak colony
  • The activities of the bee colony are reduced.
  • Workers start to lay eggs.


  Eggs laid by Queen Bee

Eggs laid by Queen Bee


  Eggs laid by Worker Bees

Eggs laid by Worker Bees

This kind of behaviour (i.e. natural replacement of a queen) is acceptable and the beekeeper is advised not to destroy the supercedure cells since making a queen in such conditions is acceptable.