When you become a beekeeper, you learn all kinds of fascinating things about bee behavior.
One of those things is festooning.
This refers to how bees sometimes cling together like a chain between two points in space.
When you observe this for the first time, you might be puzzled. What is it the bees are trying to achieve? And what purpose might this serve?
What is bee festooning?
Bee festooning occurs when bees link legs to form long chains between open spaces in the hives. These chains are usually just one bee wide. They occur during the wax comb building process by the younger worker bees.
If you observe honey bees for a while, you soon learn that bees all act together for the common good of the whole hive. Sometimes, it’s as if they’re one large organic entity. Each bee goes about a specific task, but every individual’s job contributes to the betterment of the hive.
One of these tasks is building honeycomb.
The perfect hexagonal structure of honeycomb is an extraordinary thing in itself. Wax is built by young worker bees aging between 1 and 3 weeks (their wax-secreting capacity diminishes as they get older).
While going about the comb construction, you will sometimes see bees festooning.
The word “festoon” is usually used to describe a decorative chain or garland of flowers, lights, or flags, suspended between two points. You can immediately see the similarity when you see a festoon of honey bees.
Festooning bees will bridge the open space between the upper and lower parts of an empty or partially filled frame. You can see them hanging vertically from the underside of the incomplete honeycomb, usually in a thickness of one bee.
They can do this thanks to the anatomy of their legs. Honey bee legs have a pair of hooks at the end. They can use their hooks to clasp onto the hooks of another bee’s leg.
You also often see this during hive inspections. For example, if you pull two frames apart, the bees clasp together and form a horizontal festoon in the gap you just created. If you were to leave this gap, bees would eventually fill it with beeswax!
It’sIt’s fascinating to watch this act of acrobatic cooperation! Like a team of gymnasts holding hands 🙂
When do you see bees festooning?
Strictly speaking, you would only see bees forming a festoon at two specific moments:
- During the comb building season in early spring
- Inside the hive, between frames
Building honeycomb is the job of the newest bees in the colony. First, they secrete beeswax from glands underneath their abdomen. Then, the flakes of beeswax are molded into hexagonal cells using their mouthparts.
Suppose you remove a frame from your hive while the bees are festooning. In that case, you can sometimes witness them drop down from the bottom edge of the frame to form a new festoon as if they are trying to measure how much space remains beneath!
Note that bees cling together for different purposes and at other times. This is usually not festooning if you see bees clumped together at another moment or outside the hive.
Why do bees festoon?
The standard explanation for why bees festoon is to facilitate the wax comb building operation. There are a handful of theories that experienced beekeepers and scientists have deduced.
However, the real reason they do this remains unidentified (you’ll have to ask the bees!).
The most convincing theories about why bees festoon includes:
- Using their bodies to create warmth which facilitates comb building and repair.
- Creating scaffolding to assist with the comb-building process.
- Measuring the distances in a non-finished frame of comb.
These theories are not as far-fetched as they might seem. They are based on things that we actually know about honey bees.
Bees festooning to create warmth
Bees often need to clean up or repair wax comb in the hive. The wax is secreted by worker bees by transforming the sugars in honey into a waxy substance. This process is most efficient in a warm beehive.
The temperature in the hive needs to be between 91 and 97°F (33 – 36°C) for wax secretion to be most effective.
The assumption is that bees festoon to create warmth, thereby improving the efficiency of wax production and comb building.
A bee festoon acts as scaffolding.
Hanging in thin chains might also assist bees with their comb-building actions.
This could be linked to the way wild bees build comb. In Europe, studies have discovered complex festooning behavior. Wild bees often choose empty cavities, such as the inside of a hollow tree, to build nests. Bees create large festoon patterns inside these nests, like a “bag” of hanging bees. This is thought to help bees erect comb inside the big open space of the hollow tree.
Bees measure distances by festooning.
Bees can measure space inside a hive. We know this because of the phenomenon called “bee space.” Bee space is a distance of ⅜ of an inch (9mm). Any gaps greater than this will get filled with comb.
It’s thought that festooning is a way to measure bee space while building new wax combs.
Bees festooning outside the hive or at the hive entrance
Sometimes beekeepers observe groups of bees clumping together outside a hive. This is not festooning. Instead, this is an activity beekeepers call “bearding.”
They do this when conditions are unsuitable for supporting large numbers of bees packed together inside the hive. For example, bearding can occur when it is too hot or humid inside a beehive. As the bee population grows, conditions inside the hive can get pretty crowded!
By bearding, the bees create room within the hive to improve ventilation and help cool down the interior and reduce moisture levels.
Without this collective response, the inside of the hive can become dangerously hot and threaten the well-being of the developing brood.
When bees bunch together when bearding or swarming, there is a similarity with festooning. The bees on the group’s outer edges cling together with their hooked feet in the same way they would in a festoon.
But because this is happening outside, usually in clumps that are more than one bee deep and have nothing to do with was building, these other occurrences are not labeled “festooning”
Watching the activity in and around a beehive is captivating!
Over time you’ll understand honey bees’ habits better and better. Jürgen Tautz is a renowned German bee researcher who has written many books about bee behavior. So if you’re feeling bewildered, this is excellent reading to help you understand the quirks of honey bees.
Now you know the main reasons why bees festoon.
Or maybe they’re just hanging out!?
What do you think?