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The Mystery of Bee Washboarding Behavior

Experienced beekeepers pride themselves on understanding many of the behaviors of honey bees. Bee behavior has been studied by researchers for hundreds of years. But, we still do not understand everything that these interesting insects do. Bee washboarding behavior is an activity that continue to puzzle beekeepers. We have some ideas of why they do it but no one knows absolutely for sure what it means.

Honey bees washboarding on hive front image.

Bee Washboarding Behavior

It usually starts like this. A beekeeper notices some unusual activity near the hive. So of course, we wonder – what are those bees doing?

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Closer observation reveals the bees to be engaged in some type of group behavior. It seems to be very purposeful.

Several hundred worker bees are on the front of the hive, or on the landing board at the hive entrance. Their movements are dance-like as they slowly sway and move.

This is bee washboarding behavior and it is a great puzzle to beekeepers new and experienced.

honey bees gathered on front of hive in a washboard pattern

What is Bee Washboarding Behavior?

From a few bees to a few hundred, they stand in rows facing the hive entrance. Standing on their 2nd and 3rd pairs of legs, their heads and front legs are bent.

In a rhythmic rocking movement, bees scrape the hive surface with front legs and mandibles. They seem very serious about this action and seem to be involved in some type of cleaning activity.

The term “washboarding” applies to this bee behavior that resembles scrubbing clothes on a washboard.

Only worker bees are involved in this action, no drone bees are participating. The activity always occurs near an exterior entrance of the hive.

However, washboarding can happen inside the hive as well – as it has been seen in observation hives.

This behavior is only seen during the warmer months of the year. Not likely to happen during a nectar flow, washboarding bees are more common in times of nectar dearth.

Why do Bees Washboard?

We don’t really know why bees perform this Washboarding behavior. But, bee colonies have been doing it for more years than humans can count.

Strangely not every hive in the bee yard will exhibit this behavior which leads us to think perhaps it is not an environmental issue. It also takes place more in the afternoon when little foraging is occurring.

The activity is a bit different than a hive that is bearding. In those situations, the bees are just hanging together outside the hive on a humid day. They are not involved in any organized activity.

Throughout the years, many beekeepers have offered possible theories for this unusual washboarding activity.

Honey bees on hive front facing same direction making strange movements image.

Theories About Bees Washboarding

Several theories have been considered about the reason for this strange bee behavior – but we may never know for certain.

  • bees with nothing to do are “sweeping the porch”
  • this is a cleaning process – the bees are polishing the entrance
  • bees are depositing some scent of olfactory cues on the hive
  • it’s genetic? – some colonies do it more than others

When you see your hives engaging in this activity, consider scheduling a hive inspection. A quick check to ensure that the colony has some food coming in is one simple thing we can do as beekeepers.

Though washboarding is not necessarily a sign of hunger, if natural nectar is lacking it is a good time to check the food stores.

Even the most knowledgeable bee researchers are unsure of the reason behind this unique bee activity.

While we may never know why bees perform this “strange to us” behavior. It gives us a deeper appreciation for the complex world of the honey bee.

Final Thoughts on What it Means When Bees Washboard

There is no doubt that the bees are telling us something when they engage in Washboarding behavior? If only, we could understand-what it is!

In the meantime, we can only marvel at the mystery of the life in the honey bee colony. There are some facts about bees that may always remain a mystery.

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