Bees Washboarding

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The unusual things honey bees do has been studied by researchers for hundreds of years. But, we still do not understand everything about them. One activity that continues to puzzle beekeepers is seeing bees do something called “washboarding“. This unique pattern of movement takes place on the front of the hive. And, no one knows absolutely for sure what it means.

Honey bees washboarding on front of a beehive.

Because beekeepers are responsible for keeping colonies healthy, we strive to stay on top of any possible problems. Productive hives are a result of good hive management and to achieve that we need to understand colony conditions – as much as possible.

Washboarding Honey Bees

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?

Closer observation reveals the bees to be engaged in some type of group action. It seems to be very purposeful as they are focused on the task at hand.

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 use their front legs to scrape the hive surface- also their mandibles or jaws (serving as bee teeth). They seem very serious about this action and it seems to be some type of cleaning activity.

Their movements are dance-like as they slowly sway to and fro.

Several hundred worker bees are on the front of the hive, or on the landing board at the hive entrance. Standing on their 2nd and 3rd pair of legs –

What could this mean? They are not foraging to bring food into the hive – there is no real 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?

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.

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. It is one of those interesting questions about bees with no concrete answer. 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 bees. 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 setting aside tie to inspect your beehive 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.

Finally

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 bee facts that may always remain a mystery.