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Festooning Bees: Unique Honey Bee Behavior

One might think that after all these years we know everything about honey bees.  Alas, this is not true.  There are still some mysteries we have yet to unravel.  One such behavior is festooning bees.  While we understand some of the reasons for this action, much of it is simply educated guesses. There is still more to learn.

What is Festooning?

Worker bees hanging in festooning chain in hive frame image.

Festooning bees is a behavior where honey bees hang in a line or chain making a lace type pattern between frames inside the hive.  They are attached to one another by each others legs – it looks like the bees are holding hands.

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When the beekeeper first notices festooning inside a hive, it is a very exciting experience.  It is obvious that the bees are doing it for a special reason and it looks so organized. 

How do they communicate in a way that lets everyone know what to do?  This is one of those mysteries we still do not understand completely.

Chain of honey bees holding on to each others legs image.

Why Bees Festoon?

Honestly, this behavior continues to be somewhat of a mystery to beekeepers and research scientists. We are not exactly sure why they festoon but we do have some ideas.

One idea, the function of the living chain may have something to do with comb construction.  Researchers have hinted at this as a possibility. Yet, bees have been known to festoon in other areas of the hive. Perhaps there are more than one purpose for this type of bee behavior.

These chains of hanging worker bees can create new comb or repair old comb that has been damaged. Colonies with a small amount of wax moth damage must repair the wax cells. Cleaning and repair is a constant job for workers. Anything that makes the job easier would be a plus.

In the image at the top of this article, my bees are festooning while building new comb in an empty frame. In time, the whole frame will fill with comb.

Benefits for Comb Construction

Some of the top theories for the reason bees hang in a festoon:

  • Makes comb building easier
  • Useful for measuring spaces
  • Heat provided promotes wax production

It is believed that festooning bees are able to recreate sections of comb faster than would be possible by individual bees doing their own thing.  The ladder of bees serves as a sort of scaffolding. Though they don’t always get into festooning position for comb building.

Bees on foundation making beeswax comb image.

Each bee secretes small flakes of wax (called scales) from wax glands on their abdomen – the underside of a worker bee. Then, it is shaped and used to build hexagonal cells on the frame in the proper position. 

In this way, honey bees form comb to create their nest in the hive. Isn’t’ it a good thing that honey bees have 6 legs.  They need some to manipulate the wax and some to hang onto their sisters in the chain.

Honey bees are quite particular about where they place frames of comb.  We know that they are able to measure spaces inside the hive.

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Combs are built in any space larger than 3/8 of an inch “bee space” – perhaps festooning helps bees keep the proper spacing between combs. The colony attempts to fill any open spaces with comb.

Young worker honey bees are the most efficient wax producers in the colony.  Those in the 14 -18 day old age group are just entering their peak production.  In a hive where thousands of wax cells are needed, wax production is important.

These cells will be used to hold honey and pollen. Some become brood cells and serve as a place to rear young or bee brood. The colony needs plenty of cells to provide space for all these needs.

The best temperature for secretion of wax and manipulation is over 91°F.  One possible theory on the purpose of festooning is that the chain of hanging bees create more heat.

Workers inspecting new comb in a hive image.

However, despite these great examples of why bee festooning is beneficial – it is not required.  We know that honey bees can build comb without hanging in chains with their sisters. 

Why do it in some areas and not others?  Unless it involves the “size” of the construction area – we just don’t know.

Jürgen Tautz is a world-renowned German bee biologist. His book – Buzz about Bees Biology of a Superorganism is fascinating for anyone truly interested in honey bee life. It is one of my favorites.

In one of his latest books – he submits the idea that the chaining bees we see in festooning – may indeed be a carry-over behavior from wild bees. Wild bees hang in groups around the construction area – forming a kind of net structure. The net does not necessarily have anything to do with actual comb construction but serves other functions perhaps.

If you want to learn more about his thoughts – read : Wild Honey Bees. This is not a how-to beekeeping book but it is a treasure for any bee lover. The photography is outstanding.

If most researchers are unsure – I can’t hope to give a better answer. We do know that this a common behavior in hives during the warm season.

One thing is certain, festooning bees are a delightful sight to see in the hive.  This is one of the joys of being a beekeeper.  We get a unique view of the life of the honey bee – even if we do not always understand why they do things.

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