What Is Honey Bee Washboarding?

Bees washboarding on the front of a white beehive

Humans have been beekeeping in various forms for almost 9000 years. While recent research by mellitologists helps us understand how bees operate, there’s still much we don’t understand.

Washboarding is a great example of bee activity that researchers and beekeepers can’t seem to work out. There are plenty of theories, but nothing set in concrete.

If you’d like to know what honey bee washboarding is about, then keep reading. We’ve pulled together the most recent research on this topic.

What is washboarding?

Washboarding occurs when honey bees stand on their second and third sets of legs and rhythmically rock. During this process, there may be small or large groups of bees spaced out on the hive. They face the entrance with their front legs and head bent. 

The term washboarding resulted from the bees appearing to scrub clothes on a washboard. During this rhythmic movement, the honey bees use their mandibles and front legs to scrape the surface of the hive.      

Quick facts about washboarding

  • It usually occurs near the entrance of the hive and may take place on the inside or outside.
  • Drones and the queen don’t take part in washboarding, only the worker bees  participate.
  • Washboarding only occurs in warm weather and is much more likely during nectar dearth than in times of nectar flow.
  • The behavior was most prevalent in workers aged 15-25 days old.
  • Washboard activity increases from 8am to 2pm and may keep up that momentum until 9pm. Source.

Why do bees washboard?

Although scientists have a range of hypotheses, we still don’t have a clear understanding of why bees take part in washboarding. To add to the confusion, not all hives in an apiary will exhibit this puzzling behavior. This has led some researchers to conclude that it may not be the result of environmental factors like global warming. 

1. Cleaning: It could be a cleaning activity to improve the hive’s hygiene levels.

2. Olfactory cues: Bees are leaving their colony’s scent around the hive to make it easier for returning foragers to find home. (Taulman 2017)

3. Filling in time: An abundance of nurse bees means there isn’t enough work to do; they’re filling in time until it’s time to begin foraging. Source.

4. Genetic: Some hives washboard, others don’t which leads researchers to believe it could be a genetic predisposition.

5. Hunger: Washboarding is often seen during times of food shortages so they may be conserving energy or simply filling in time until more nectar and pollen becomes available.

What to do if washboarding is happening

Beekeepers that witness washboarding on their hives shouldn’t be alarmed as it’s a natural, common activity. However, it’s good practice to schedule a hive inspection within a few days of the sighting. Check the colony has sufficient food coming in and provide supplemental food if needed.

What is bearding?

Bearding is an activity where honey bees gather in a beard formation at the front of the hive on hot humid days. They are trying to cool the internal temperature of the hive to keep conditions optimal for brood rearing. Making space in the hive and fanning their wings helps regulate the temperature inside of the hive.

Bees bearding to cool the hive on a hot day
Bearding helps to cool the hive on hot days.

Bearding vs washboarding – what’s the difference?

Bearding is where bees cluster tightly together and fan their wings to cool the hive on hot days. During washboarding, worker bees will space themselves apart on the inside or outside of the hive and rock back and forward like they’re scrubbing. Unlike bearding, scientists are unsure why bees washboard.

PurposeA cooling activity to regulate temperature and humidityResearchers don’t agree on why washboarding occurs
Where it happensOutside the hiveOutside or inside the hive
Who gets involvedWorker beesWorker bees
When it’s common to seeHot and humid daysPeriods of nectar dearth
Formation during the activityClumped like a beardSlightly spaced out

Summing up

Washboarding looks just like it sounds and if you witness your bees doing it, it’ll be easy to recognize. It may only happen for a day or two before the workers get back to their regular jobs. But in some cases, they’ll keep on rocking for weeks.

There isn’t a lot that beekeepers can do about washboarding. Instead, we advise to keep an eye on the colony and do an inspection to check that your bees aren’t starving. If needed, you can feed them – follow this guide to feeding bees if you need some help. 

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