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Similar to festooning, washboarding is another intriguing honeybee behavior. Washboarding is not an individual honeybee behavior but rather a collective or group behavior that occurs inside and outside the beehive, more so, on the beehive surface. It is mainly done by young worker bees and usually occurs at end of nectar flows.
Washboarding can be observed in all strains of bees that fall within the group referred to as Apis mellifera. The group of bees tends to stand in equally spaced circles with the hind legs fixed on one position and the front legs rocking back and forth. As this happens, the bees lick the hive surface.
Washboarding will occur for a day or two in most cases and can extend for up to two weeks in some honeybee colonies. See below for a better understanding of what washboarding entails:
- It occurs inside and outside the beehive with the honeybees focusing on the hive surface.
- Young worker bees are responsible for washboarding and these comprise 15 to 25 days old workers at peak. They start to washboard at about 13 days old. As they get older they tend to focus on other duties.
- The bees will begin to washboard from 8 a.m. and the activity intensifies until 2 p.m. After this, it slows down until 9 p.m. It will only occur during hot and warm days.
- Washboarding bees focus on rough surfaces over smooth ones.
- Washboarding also occurs in wild bees just like with domesticated honeybees. Nonetheless, not much has been done in terms of studying the behavior of feral bees.
- Washboarding has been likened to bearding even though these two behaviors are totally independent and unrelated. Bearding refers to the behavior where honeybees hang out together outside the beehive when the hive interior is humid. In bearding, the bees do not work together in any way but are rather stepping out of the hive to avoid congesting it so as to keep the hive within the required optimal conditions. In bearding, clumps of bees that could be a mixture of different bees cluster a few hinges from the hive entrance. Crowded hives exhibit bearding and are a sure sign you need to split the colony before they swarm.
- Washboarding is most common during nectar dearth or shortages and not during a nectar flow. Hence, there is a need to inspect the beehive once the bees washboard.
Possible Reasons for Washboarding
The reason for washboarding in honeybees has been explained in several ways:
1. Removal of pathogens from the hive
Some beekeepers have explained the washboarding behavior as a way of eliminating pathogens from the beehive. This seems to be backed by research that was done showing the washboarding at a single entrance as returning foraging bees passed through the center of the group while getting into the hive. It appeared as if the returning bees cleaned up before entering the hive. This can also be supported by the tendency of the bees to give more focus on a rough surface when washboarding. They are believed to smooth out such surfaces to eliminate favorable habitats for pathogens.
2. Removal of leftover particles or waste
Some beekeepers believe that washboarding is a way of removing particles that were accumulated during the honey season. This can be backed up by the fact that washboarding occurs at end of nectar flow. Foraging bees can inadvertently carry along unwanted particles as they come back to the hive after their trips. It is also observed that the bees washboard from in the sunny morning and intensify the behavior till the afternoon. They then slow down and end by 9 p.m. This is the time when the colony foragers are in full operation, that is, from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Thereafter foraging slows down and it appears to correspond with the washboarding activity.
3. Colony scent
Washboarding is explained as a way the worker bees continuously apply the colony scent at the hive entrance and inside the hive. This is one of the ways of guiding returning foragers for quick access to the hive. The worker bees use their front legs to apply the scent and since the tarsal pheromone aids the bees while doing so, the bees apply the substance repetitively to achieve the required results.
4. Idle worker bees
Some believe washboarding occurs when idle worker bees find some work to do outside the hive. They are busy sweeping the hive since there is nothing else to do.
5. It could be genetic
An analysis of different beehives shows that some worker bees engage in washboarding in some colonies more than others. This could have a direct link to genetics with future bees tending to show similar behavior as their ancestors.
Worker bees have been observed to engage in the behavior during seasons of food scarcity unlike when food is plenty. This could therefore mean that the worker bees are conserving their energy instead of venturing outside where there are limited food resources. They are simply buying time as they wait for pollen and nectar flows.
The beekeeper should inspect the hive once the bees have started washboarding. A simple check on the hive can help identify if all is in order or otherwise. Washboarding is not a fully understood behavior and therefore the various reasons put forth haven’t been exhaustive. However, the worker bees are, without question, trying to pass a message to the beekeeper. When it occurs, it is wise to inspect the hive and ensure food reserves are sufficient for the colony and if not, food supplements should be provided to the bees.