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Bees Washboarding: Why are They Doing That?

Bee behavior has been studied by researchers for hundreds of years. But, we still do not understand everything that these interesting insects do. One activity that continues to puzzle beekeepers is seeing bees washboarding. We have some ideas of why they do it but no one knows absolutely for sure what it means.

Bees Washboarding Behavior

Honey bees washboarding on front of a beehive image.

It usually starts like this. A beekeeper notices some unusual activity near the hive. So of course, we wonder – what are those bees doing now? The entrance of the hive is a great place to observe bee behavior (stand to the side of course).

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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 to and fro.

They are not foraging or coming and going from the hive. This is bee washboarding behavior and it is a great puzzle to beekeepers new and experienced. It is not unusual to feel that we need to do something for our bees – but what?

Be warned that watching your bees is such an enticing delight that you may find yourself spending too much time in the bee yard.

Why is it Called Washboarding?

From a few bees to a few hundred, they arrange themselves 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 or jaws. They seem very serious about this action and it seems to be some type of cleaning activity.

The term “washboarding” is used to describe this behavior because it resembles scrubbing clothes on a washboard.

Only workers 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. We just don’t notice it inside the hive hidden from view.

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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.

Line of honey bees engaged in washboarding polishing behavior on hive image.

Why do Bees Washboard?

We don’t really know why bees perform Washboarding. But, bee colonies have been doing it for more years than humans can count. The term was applied to this activity long before electric washing machines. (Today, would it be called “maytagging”?)

Strangely not every hive in the bee yard will exhibit this behavior at the same time. Which leads us to think perhaps it is not an environmental issue after all. It also takes place more in the late afternoon in evening – when little foraging is occurring.

Bee washboarding is a bit different than bearding. These two bee behaviors are often confused. In bearding, the bees are just hanging together outside the hive on a humid day. They are not involved in any organized activity.

Clumps of bees often beard and hang down several inches from the hive entrance during bearding. It is a very unusual sight. If your colony is crowded and a bit more ventilation to your hive many help.

Small nucleus colony with bearding bees hanging down from the front image.

Theories About Bees Washboarding

Several theories have been considered about the reason for washboarding – 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 in the next few days. Just a quick check to ensure that the colony has some food coming in.

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.

There is no doubt that the bees are telling us something when they engage in this group activity we call washboarding. If only, we could understand-what it is! But then, sometimes we attempt to tell the bees about major events in our lives – do they understand?

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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