Beekeeping Master – the piping queen

Some people do and some people think they do….that’s life.

Arwel (not his real name) is a beekeeper with 45 years experience pre and post varroa, one of many beekeepers I spoke to whilst on the Honey section at the Royal Welsh Show 2016.

This is a story about the Beekeeping Master as opposed to the Master Beekeeper that creature of the modern era of beekeeping. The Beekeeping Master being the person who kept bees in skeps who managed bees, honey and wax without having to destroy colonies every year.

This is a story that was told to Arwel as a young beekeeper by an old family friend Jack who had a keen interest in old country living practices and that had been told to him when he was a boy.

Jack’s family lived on a small farm working closely together as a unit. One summers day when out gathering hay they heard a loud commotion from a neighbouring farm, a loud clanging noise that went on for some time; Jack went off to have a look and came across the neighbouring family in an orchard making quite a noise using kitchen implements; wooden spoons onto pans.

Jack watched for a while before asking what they were doing. Catching a swarm of bees they told him. There was an elderly gentleman who told Jack to come back later that evening and he would explain what they were doing.

He returned that evening and found the old gentleman who proceeded to tell him the detail as he understood it.

The old gentleman (Beekeeping Master) explained that he managed honeybees by keeping them in skeps, but unlike the vast majority of beekeepers of that time he didn’t kill the bees at the end of the season he moved them from one skep to another. This was done by placing another empty skep above the skep the bees were living in, after removing the top of it and blocking the entrance, or indeed turning it upside down and then placing an empty skep over it. He then beat the sides of the skep with his hands and the bees moved up into the new skep. It is thought that the queen moves and the bees follow her. (A practice still used by French beekeepers keeping bees in tree trunks)

Back to the story of the swarm; earlier that day one of the family had noticed that a swarm had flown out of one of their colonies and into an apple tree. The family stopped what they were doing went into the kitchen to gather some pots and spoons and then proceeded to make a lot of noise. This he explained was to make sure that the piping noise that the queen makes would not be detected by the swarm…by making lots of noise the piping noise would be drowned out.

This gives me time, he explained, to set up for the return of the swarm to the original hive, or more correctly to where the original hive used to be. I instruct my assistant to keep making the noise the whole time that I am working. I then move the hive that issued the swarm some distance away from its original position. In its place I put a new hive (skep).

Before long the swarm started to disperse and some bees started to return to their original hive position. The bees that had been out foraging were also returning to the new hive in the original position as if nothing had happened. The bees returning to the new hive from the swarm started to signal to the other swarm bees by holding their abdomens in the air and exposing their nasanov gland. Gradually the bees returned to the new hive in the original position.

In this way the swarm is prevented from flying off and returns to the new hive where there is no longer any brood or comb because the original hive has been moved elsewhere. This has the effect of stopping the swarming impulse as the brood has been removed and the swarm starts a new colony. It assumes that the queen also returns to the new hive as the swarm cannot survive without her.

Those who don’t understand about bees simply collect the swarm in a skep and take it away to a new location to keep as their own. It works just as well as the above but little understanding is required of what is happening other than the swarm with a queen will happily set up a new colony. This method also means that as there are plenty of foragers still returning to the original hive cast swarms can issue.

By moving the original hive to a new position, it loses its foragers and hence is unlikely to swarm even if it has many virgin queens.

So what is going on?

Well it is important to understand that there are three things a virgin queen and a queen prepared for swarming can do; i) Fly, ii) Fight (use their sting against other queens) and iii) make a piping noise.

As the colony decides to swarm for one of what we believe may be several reasons they start the process of slimming down the queen in preparation for flight and she also stops laying.

Tom Seeley tells us in Honeybee Democracy that it is a small proportion of the colony that instigate the swarming and they get the colony worked up and ready to swarm. Interestingly around half the colony will swarm leaving the other half behind. (I haven’t seen anything to suggest how the bees decide who goes and who stays in terms of sheer numbers; more recent study shows that bees of all ages go with a swarm)

Many texts write about the bees following the queen, however, my experience and indeed the story from the Beekeeping Master to Jack is that the queen is often one of the last to leave the hive and often does not go to the same place as the initial issue of bees. The queen will alight somewhere at which point she will make an audible piping noise using her wings (200-500Hz). It is this piping that the swarm detects and informs them of the whereabouts of the queen. The swarm will then move if necessary to where the queen is located. Hence if there is a lot of noise being made that masks the piping of the queen the bees cannot hear her and eventually return to hive, the queen and her attendants will follow them back.

On their return they find that there is no brood and only foraging bees. Most beekeepers know that there are three elements of the colony that must be strong to enable swarming; brood, a queen and foraging bees. Take one of these away and the bees shouldn’t swarm.

With the swarm returned to the new hive in the original position it only has bees and a queen; no brood. The original hive in the new position only has brood with young bees and a virgin queen. Both are viable colonies and neither should swarm.

This explained the Beekeeping Master is why we were making the loud noise and the difference between the Beekeeping Master and the beekeeper.

In my experiences I have seen elements of the Beekeeping Master’s story in practice. There is I feel scope for research into why the queen makes the piping noise and indeed how it is made. Any reference to it that I can find talks about virgin queens communicating with each other…

In May 2015 I was at a hive when it swarmed, watching the bees gather in a tree. As they did so I went to the entrance to block it up and hopefully prevent the queen from emerging. As I did so I saw the queen on the landing board near the entrance so I trapped her in a queen clip putting her into a skep. My initial idea was that the bees would go to her in the skep as this is what happens when a swarm is collected by shaking it into a skep. What actually happened was that the bees eventually returned to the hive leaving the queen with a few attendant bees. What I think was happening here was that the queen wasn’t piping and so the bees couldn’t find her and went back. Anyway at the time I couldn’t explain it.

In another situation I was looking at a colony and found that the bees were in a state ready to swarm and searched around for the queen. I eventually found her although she was clearly thinner and flighty but I managed to trap her and put her into a poly nuc box. Shortly after doing this I could hear her piping! At this stage I had split the bees so they didn’t try and swarm. It proved to me that it isn’t just the virgin queens that make this piping noise.

Recently I had a swarm up the front of the hive and I gently drove them up into a skep, but noticed the queen straggling along near the back. I trapped her and put her into the skep and left the bees to cluster inside until the evening. When I returned the cluster was not around the queen so I assumed there might be another queen with them. I shook them out in front of a new hive and watched them march into it….but no queen. I released the trapped queen into the top of the colony. It is happy enough.

I don’t clip queens wings but I have heard from beekeepers who do that the bees swarm out but of course the queen can’t fly and more often than not is lost on the ground. With her wings clipped is it the case that she can no longer pipe and hence the bees don’t swarm around her on the ground. It would be interesting to hear of any observations.

2 thoughts on “Beekeeping Master – the piping queen

  1. Hi Chris,

    In reply to your fascinating article, piping has always fascinated me. I have detected piping from hatched virgins on the comb whilst there is piping coming from unhatched virgins on other combs in the hive. Emerging swarms may start to settle, but it is the later emerging queen that finally choses the spot, maybe piping to rally the crowd? Once a cluster starts to surround her, any piping would be muffled by bee bodies, and gathering must be guided by pheromones.

    My theory, as I have not read any definitive explanation, is that piping is made by rhythmic contractions of opposing flight muscles (dynamic tension) within the echo chamber of the thorax. The only other noise that bees make is with their wing beats at different rates, which they are obviously not doing when they are piping.

    It would seem to me that you would need to be by the hive very quickly as the swarm emerges to effectively drown out any piping from the queen. Perhaps you need a powerful sound system set up ready in your apiary, and be on permanent standby when swarming is anticipated!

    I cannot work out how to post my reply, so please can you do it for me?

    David Sent from my iPad


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