Image above: Festooning bees. Flickr photo by Maja Dumat/blumenbiene.
A lacework chain of bees is a festoon, and their behavior is called festooning. Festooning is the name given to the way honey bees hang together in a lacework pattern, leg-to-leg, between the frames of comb in their hives.
Sometimes they hang all the way to the depths of the frame and from wall to wall as they lay out a pattern to build new lacework style honeycomb between the frames. A festoon is rarely a cluster. It is usually a thin string of bees that form an open and airy connection.
If you separate hive frames slowly, you will see bees hanging in sheets, stretching between the frames. When you separate the frames completely, they look like chains or wires hanging in thin air, until they let go.
Beeswax honeycomb building season in the northern hemisphere is said to be in spring, but scientists do not all agree that this is the only time of year it happens.
This video about festooning is 2:30 minutes long by Jason Chrisman:
Festooning is a bit of a mystery still, although there are many opinions and explanations of why bees exhibit this behavior. Scientists believe the true function of the festoon is completely unknown and inexplicable. Jürgen Tautz, a world-famous German bee biologist at the University of Würzburg, said this of festooning: “The function of the living chain that is formed by bees where new combs are being built, or old combs repaired, is completely unknown.”
Festoons of Cape honeybees in South Africa were studied by researchers Hepburn and Muller. They found that worker bees of a certain age produced the same amount of wax as other workers in their age group regardless of whether or not they were in a festoon. They also found that about half the new wax originated from bees in a festoon while the other half was from bees elsewhere in the nest. This was the case except in winter (southern hemisphere), when nearly all new wax came from non-festooning bees.
Bees are master engineers, and some think that bees festoon to measure the distance between frames. It is also thought that the structure may act as a scaffolding bees use while building the bees wax comb. Some even say that bees can only produce wax when they are in the festooning position.
Fine hairs on the honey bee anatomy make them look soft and fuzzy. They have an exoskeleton like all insects, a series of individual plates on the underside of a worker bee’s abdomen. You also see her stinger there… it is between and under the fourth and seventh plates that you find her wax glands. She can produce wax at will, but usually only at a certain phase of her adult existence.
This festooning video is 7:45 minutes long by The Bush Bee Man, and it looks like the bees are measuring for new comb.
During the short 5 to 6 weeks lifespan of the spring-through-autumn honey bee, worker bees perform a progressive series of tasks that end with the cycle of being a forager. Honeycomb building and wax production are age-specific duties that occur when the worker is between 12 and 25 days old. Wax secretion is in the form of small flakes. She then uses her legs to move the flakes up to her mouth, where she shapes them into perfect hexagonal cells with the slightest downward inclination from the opening. How honey bees form comb with such precision and near perfection is a mystery of nature.
Temperature is important when it comes to making a substance malleable enough to shape, and that’s where festooning comes in. When they form lace-like festoons around the comb construction site, bees can maintain it at around 95ºF which is ideal for comb building.
Don’t be surprised if you have been a beekeeper for several years and have never witnessed festooning before. While it is a common behavior, it is only a factor in about half of all honeycomb constructed. In summertime, temperatures in the 90s make festooning unnecessary. The best time to see it may be when you inspect your hives at night, when the air cools off as the sun goes down. Bees do not stop working in the hive just because it is dark. After foraging all day for nectar and pollen, worker bees work a night shift in festoons building comb.
This is just another example of how bees build their communities by working together, and in this case, even physically linking up in a lacy pattern to get the job done.
There is always a useful purpose to anything bees undertake. The mystery surrounding the purpose of festoons is exciting. Surely it is just a matter of time until scientists figure this out, too.