Honeybees Make a Cute 'Whoop' When They're Surprised

CC BY 2.0. Richard Bartz et al

Listen to the Betty Boops of the insect world as they "boop oop a doop" in the hive.

And I thought the squeaks of a baby sloth were cute? Well, they are ... but they've got some tough competition from a very surprising source: Whooping honeybees.

Earlier Theories

So it isn't new news that honeybees make a vibrational pulse to communicate. Sam Wong writes in New Scientist that while scientists have known about this signaling since the 1950s, they first speculated that it indicated a request for food. "Later, it was shown that the signal was produced when one bee tried to inhibit another from performing a waggle dance," Wong writes, "a behaviour that tells other bees where to forage." It was later interpreted as a warning signal.

Startling New Research

But new research has an update to those theories: The vibrational pulse – AKA the cute whoop – could actually be an expression of surprise.While inaudible to our feeble human ears, with the aid of accelerometers embedded in the honeycomb, researcher Martin Bencsik and his team from the UK's Nottingham Trent University were able to record the vibrations from within the hive. Over the course of a year, they discovered that the signal was significantly more frequent than previously thought. “There’s no way a bee was trying to inhibit another one that frequently, and there’s no way a bee would request food that frequently,” says Bencsik.

With these recordings, they were also able to determine that the whoops occurred mostly in the evening – which isn't prime waggle-dance time. Even more enlightening, a soft knock on the hive wall elited a collective whoop from hundreds of bees all at the same time. Sounds like surprise to me. Upon viewing the hive action with inner-hive cameras, they found that the signal often occurred when one bee bumped into another

“We suggest that, in the majority of instances, it is bees being startled that produce the signal,” says Bencsik. The team propose that instead of the “stop” signal, it should be called the “whooping” signal.

See the full research here; and enjoy some bees a-whooping in the video below.