small bee
worker bees fanning

As children we are told how bees communicate, it’s cool, we’ve all done the waggle dance! A peanut shape or figure of eight circuit to communicate a food source, detailing distance and direction. A phenomenal achievement for a tiny insect with a brain the size of a pinhead! But it’s even better then that … this dance plays out on a vertical frame in the pitch dark, for bees receiving the information to convert onto a horizontal plane in blinding daylight. The directions aren’t only relative to the hive position, but the position of the sun – which changes all through the day.

All the while there are other messages silently circulating within the hive. Honeybees communicate using a complex range of chemical messages, pheromones, secreted by queens, drones and workers. Bees have multiple glands, producing compounds that get passed around as liquid or vapour and are detected via antennae and other body parts. There is a huge amount of research that has gone into pheromone production, purpose and recognition.

We know there are pheromones to stop workers laying, attract drones, identify egg types, inhibit swarming, encourage bees to return to the hive and many, many more. There is probably a book about it.

The reality is that there is only one you need to know and recognise. Alarm pheromone is thought to be made up of more than 40 chemical compounds, it is highly volatile and easy to identify as it has a pungent smell, similar to ripe bananas.


Bees in a hive that has been disturbed or threatened will release alarm pheromone, inciting other bees in the hive to act defensively. To spread the message, bees will lift their abdomens and fan their wings. So if you see that behaviour and smell that smell, it may be time to call it a day …

worker bee with raised abdomen