What Are Festooning Bees? Why Do They Do it?

A group of bees festooning on a frame

Over the last 50 years, researchers and beekeepers have greatly improved their understanding of bees. But some bee activities, like festooning, remain a mystery. In this guide, we’ll look at festooning and some theories on why the colony does it.   

What is festooning?

Festooning occurs when bees hang together in a chain-like formation. The beeline is usually one layer deep and appears open and airy rather than rigid.

A bee festoon is commonly seen when the hive is drawing out new comb. They hang between frames that are being worked on, using teamwork to create a living scaffold.

Bees forming a link chain by holding onto each others legs

What starts as a simple bee chain can expand into a festoon that’s as wide and deep as the frame. If you slowly pull the two frames apart, the pattern will stretch out until one side eventually lets go.       

While many insects would find it a challenge to link together in this way, a honey bee’s anatomy is built for the job. Each leg has a pair of hooks that makes it easier to hold onto another bee’s legs.  

Check out this video that shows bees festooning as they busily build out cells on a frame.

Why do bees festoon?

The reason for honey bee festooning still isn’t fully understood. Like washboarding, researchers haven’t reached an agreement on why it occurs. But there are various theories worth considering.

Beekeepers who have spent many years observing in the field offer a range of plausible explanations. A popular idea is that festooned bees help the colony calculate distances between frames. Another common theory is that the “bee bridge” provides scaffolding to make construction easier.

Some beekeepers speculate that festooning bees create heat for their brood. Greater wax production in the festoon formation is also a possibility.

Scientists also can’t reach a consensus on honey bee festooning. They agree that the behavior correlates with building out comb and the production of beeswax. But how does it help them? Researchers haven’t reached an agreement and the current situation is best summed up in the following quote:

“The function of the living chain that is formed by bees where new combs are being built, or old combs repaired, is completely unknown.”

Jürgen Tautz, German bee biologist

Why can’t researchers reach a consensus?

Studies of bee festooning have produced conflicting results that make conclusions hard to draw.

For example, Muller and Hepburn studied festoons in South Africa and found interesting results. They discovered that worker honey bees in a certain age group produced the same amount of wax as others in the same group, whether they were building as part of a festoon or not.

This finding contradicts the common belief that a festoon helps with wax production. 

Honey bees drawing out comb and festooning to assist with the building process

When do bees festoon?

Festooning is more likely to take place when a range of other factors occur. Beekeepers commonly note that there is an abundant supply of pollen and warm weather as bees festoon. Another time you’ll see this activity is before hive swarming.  

  • Ample foraging supplies: as flowers and trees burst into flower, honey bees may enjoy a period of abundant forage. With plenty of pollen available, the hive can accelerate its comb production.
  • Warm weather: temperatures need to exceed 91°F for a honey bee’s wax secretion glands to function. Expect to witness festooning in the warmer months, but not in winter.
  • Before swarming: Prior to swarming part of the colony will exit the hive and congregate outside. It is common to see bees form a lacework formation as they wait for clearance to head off in search of a new home.

Commonly asked questions

Where do bees festoon?

Honey bees usually festoon between frames as they build out cells from beeswax. They will also form these lace-like patterns on the outside of the hive.

What’s the difference between festooning and washboarding?

Washboarding occurs when honey bees space themselves out on the hive and stand on their second and third sets of legs while rhythmically rocking. Festooning usually occurs between the frames and involves a group of bees linking together like a chain.  

What’s the difference between festooning and bearding?

Festooned bees form a line by holding onto each other’s legs. It is only one layer deep and usually between the hive’s frames. Honey bee bearding occurs when honey bees gather in a multi-layered beard formation at the front of the hive on hot humid days. Festooning is linked to comb production while bearding is commonly seen on hot days to cool the hive’s inside.

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