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Festooning bees: lacework between the frames

A lacework of bees hanging together, leg-to-leg, between the frames of comb is called a “festoon” and the behavior is called “festooning.” The bees hang in sheets between the frames; sometimes the pattern is as wide and as deep as the frame itself. If you slowly separate two frames during the spring comb-building season, you can see the bees stretching between the frames likes wires on a power pole until they finally let go. A festoon is often only one layer thick, and the design is open and airy.

Beekeepers have lots of explanations for this behavior. Some say the bees are “measuring” the distance between frames, some say the structure acts like a scaffolding from which the bees build comb, some say bees can only produce wax from the festooning position.

Scientists, however, are much less confident about the function of festooning. Jürgen Tautz the world-renowned German bee biologist at the University of Würzburg says, “The function of the living chain that is formed by bees where new combs are being built, or old combs repaired, is completely unknown.”

Researchers Muller and Hepburn studied the festoons of Cape honey bees in South Africa. They found that workers in a certain age group produced the same amount of wax as others in their age group whether they were in a festoon or not. Furthermore, they found that about half the new wax originated from bees in a festoon and half from bees elsewhere in the nest, except in winter. In winter nearly all new wax came from non-festooning bees.

In a way, not knowing why they occur makes festoons all the more beautiful. Be sure to take a look.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

Festooning bees. Flickr photo by Maja Dumat/blumenbiene.

Comments

Valerie
Reply

Hi Rusty,

I’m writing a book on bees and would like permission to use your festooning picture and some of the info you provide.

Thank you,
Valerie Solheim

Sarah
Reply

Just a hello, and thanks for your excellent blog work. I linked to your entry on festooning, as it is a succinct and understandable description. Thanks!

Mig
Reply

Lovely picture! Next week, I am using the story of bees’ honey-making process to illuminate the Creation story for 3 adults I meet with. With your permission, I’d love to use this photo as an example of festooning.

Your blog is wonderfully instructive. Keep up the good work.

Mig

Rusty
Reply

Mig,

Thank you for writing. The photo was not taken by me but by Maja Dumat (screen name: blumenbiene) and it is posted on her Flickr account. She has listed the photo under a creative commons license, but you must give her credit for it, similar to what I did in the caption of the photo.

Phil
Reply

Never knew it was called festooning. I was at two different beekeeping workshops this year and this phenomenon came up for discussion. In both seminars, it was said that this type of chaining of bees is indicative of a colony being queenright. Has anyone else heard this?

Herb
Reply

An old-timer told me that the hive is queenright when the bees chain!

Mike
Reply

I don’t believe it’s an indication of a hive being queen right. I have two new hives. Then I checked the hives this weekend to see if the queens had been released from the queen cage. Both hives were festooning, but one hive the queen was dead in the cage.

Wendy Bitney
Reply

How about this? When the frames are together there is only a bee width . . . no room to festoon, lol. Anyway, what would anyone do if suddenly your house started to move apart under you? You would grab on to something and hang on! Do you see this behavior in undisturbed hives?

Rusty
Reply

Wendy,

I love your idea! But yes, festooning occurs even with no interference from us.

Anne
Reply

Something I’ve not yet seen the bees do. Now that I know they do it I’ll be watching for it. Thanks for another very informative post–huge help with my learning about bees!

Simon
Reply

I keep bees in warre hives. My hives are frameless and I work without foundation. In my windowed hives I have see festoons in the empty supers underneath the lowest combed super, spanning the width of the box, or from bottom to top. Sometimes there are single bodied chains, sometimes complex webs. It’s fascinating–I would really love to know what they are doing–seemingly idle.

So far the scaffolding theory seems most logically to me, as I do witness bees using these chains as infrastructure to climb up on.

Janet L. Wilson
Reply

I do rely on that old time advice that festooning indicates queen-rightness. The caveat there is that queenright can mean a queen (however bad), a queen cell, a virgin or a laying worker situation.

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