Washboarding Bees

And now, another video from my back yard Myrmecos studios:

Our two hives are roughly equal in strength, but one of them fields a couple hundred worker bees ‘washboarding’ every afternoon on the front of the hive. It’s a distinctively mesmerizing behavior, and what’s especially remarkable about it is that no one knows what function washboarding serves. Honey bees are perhaps the most-studied insect of all time, and yet there is still a great deal to learn even about common bee behaviors.

13 thoughts on “Washboarding Bees”

  1. They must be either 1) communicating with extraterrestrials, who refuse to talk to lowly human vermin, 2) having a big dance party with no supervision, or 3) practicing tai chi or molding cells or something. 🙂

    Seriously though, could they be marking their territory with some unknown gland? I’m sure that’s already been tossed around and discounted.

    Good video! Very Attenborough-esque, all you need now is a British accent and a fake hornet. 😉

  2. That’s extraordinary.

    Can you do us a favor and just figure out what they’re doing? By, say, like tomorrow? And report back to us? Thanks!!

    I’m strictly an armchair enthusiast for social insect study, but I seem to recall that bees use some collective movements to control the climate of the hive. I wonder if washboarding could be related to those behaviors.

  3. WOW! Is the other hive the same species and does it have juvenile bees? Are the hives oriented in the same direction? Have the washboarding bees migrated from a penal colony where punishment was routine? I do like the unsupervised dance party hypothesis!

  4. Sorry, when you said “adolescent bees” my brain instantly responded with “Let’s Rave!”

    I always think of bees as ‘responsible’, so holding a Rave does seem a bit odd.

    Thanks for another fascinating bit of natural history, or are you one of the group that has switched to calling it “nature science”?

  5. Not really a mystery.

    These bees are applying propolis to “varnish” the surfaces. If you look at the inside (unpainted) surfaces of an older brood box, you can see the result of several years of the work – you get wood that is clearly varnished with a visible layer of propolis. Bees of wax-drawing age perform this task after nectar flows, when there is no need to draw more comb, due to the drop in nectar coming in the door.

    If you look carefully, you can see each bee swipe the surface with their mandibles every so often – that’s the application of varnish, and the footwork is the polishing and spreading of the varnish.

    There were one or two USDA ARS papers on this behavior in the 1990s.


    Gotham City Honey Co-Op http://GothamCityBees.com
    NYC Beekeeping Meetup http://meetup.com/nyc-beekeeping

  6. Are they doing the same in the wild? I mean the solution might be there, they do something on the hive we build them that seems to have no sense here, but the wild swarms might do it for a special aim on their nest’s outer surface.

  7. Do bees taste with their tarsi the way flies do? Perhaps there’s some MSG-like compound in the paint on the hive boxes? But I think this idea gets shot down since they’re only washboarding on one face of the hive.

    Could the washboarding behavior change the spectral profile of the hive’s reflectance… so to make it more or less visible to returning foragers? But I didn’t think bees used visual cues to navigate back, so perhaps that’s not the case.

    Are there any unusual temperatures nearby? Could they be trying to change the nest/hive wall thickness?

    Could we experimentally reproduce the vibrations (e.g., with a vibrator?) and see if that can be used to stimulate this behavior in other colonies? Perhaps it’s… pleasing?

  8. Thanks for that! I posted a video on my blog and a friend pointed me here. Excellent video – too bad that I’m still in the dark as to why – but at least I know it’s “normal”.

  9. Pingback: Do bees line dance? | Keeping Bees in the Urban Jungle

  10. You know they could be Nurse Bees just getting some fresh air and drying out their exoskeleton.
    My one hive is doing this today and the other is not. July 27,2013 Tampa 90 outside.

Leave a Reply