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Washboarding bees arockin’ and alickin’

A strange honey bee behavior known as “washboarding” or “rocking” continues to elude an explanation, but it is fun to watch. Worker bees gather in large groups—either inside the hive or out—and rock back and forth while seeming to lick the surface beneath them. The motion has been likened to that of scrubbing clothes on a washboard.

Katie Bohrer and Jeffrey Pettis of the USDA-ARS Bee Research Lab studied washboarding bees and discovered a number of things.

  • The washboarders were all worker bees.
  • They started washboarding at 13 days old.
  • The peak amount of washboarding occurred in workers between 15-25 days old.
  • Washboarding increased from about 8 a.m. to about 2 p.m. and then remained constant to as late as 9 p.m.
  • When given three different surfaces, the washboarding increased as the surface became more textured. Slate produced the most washboarding, followed by unpainted wood, and then glass. The surface-type data, however, did not produce statistically significant results.

Some beekeepers have noticed that washboarding occurs more frequently at the end of a nectar flow and others swear the bees will “clean up” any particles you place on the hive entrance. Other sources claim the behavior “polishes” the surface and thus eliminates rough spots where pathogenic organisms might congregate. Beyond speculation, however, no one has been able to provide a concrete explanation.

For a really cool video of washboarding, click on the link below. If you look carefully, you will notice that the rear four legs of each bee tend to stay in one place, while the front two legs do all the work. This outstanding video was provided by Alexander Wild.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

Comments

sarnik
Reply

Thanks for your good explain.

Gerry
Reply

I have only one hive out of five that are washboarding, and man are they getting the laundry done! It sure is fun to watch…I wish we really knew something more definitive as to why…

Nicola bee
Reply

I also have one hive out of five that is washboarding. Last night there were only a few bees, tonight a whole laundry full.

Joel
Reply

2012 first summer ever observed this phenomena in 53 years experience. No other beekeeper or researcher could explain this. My observation is all of these occurrences have been close to neonicotinoide-treated corn seed. French scientists support that theory in that, in drought peroids, the collection of corn pollen is increased and introduced into the food chain of the beehive. Heavy bee loss was observe that following year.

Rusty
Reply

Joel,

I’m not sure I follow. Are you saying washboarding is related to neonicotinoids?

Kari
Reply

It doesn’t look normal to me. I would guess it is pathological behavior because it is a waste of their time with no apparent benefit to the bees. I can verify that both my beehives started this when nectar flow slowed. Maybe I will grab a few and send them off for pesticide testing.

Kari

Rusty
Reply

Kari,

Trouble is, beekeepers have reported seeing this behavior for centuries, long before pesticides were manufactured. Just because we don’t know the reason they do it doesn’t mean there isn’t a reason.

carol Y.
Reply

I have a very hygienic hive that came as a nuc from hives that haven’t been treated for verroa for years, good surviving bees. They washboard and I’m wondering if maybe bees inadvertently pick up mites from flowers and some of these mites fall off when they land and these workers are scrubbing around as a hygienic behavior. I do see them ‘find’ something and they seem to stop their scrubbing and fiddle around and then start their search all over again. Whatever this behavior is, it has been interesting to watch. I must say, I am disappointed that nobody has figured it out yet. Ahh, yet one more bee mystery.

carol Y.
Reply

In my quest to find an answer I came upon this from someone on another bee site:

hese 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.

Michael M
Reply

We observed this behavior on 1 of the 2 new hives we own. It reminds me of the extensive grooming that cats engage in. They do this to eliminate the various scents that have accumulated on their faces, since much of their world is scent-based. Could it be possible that the washboarding serves to remove redundant , spurious, or obsolete chemical messages (pheromones, pollens, trace materials) from the entrance? Just a theory.

red
Reply

I associate washboarding with honey bees wasting time and energy. Generally, when I observe washboarding, the bees seem to be ignoring important tasks like comb building, brood rearing, and nectar/pollen gathering to instead endlessly polish the landing board. My washboarding colonies just seem to be less productive.

Neshan
Reply

Mother nature is far wiser than we are. I don’t think that anything a bee does can be considered a waste of time and energy. There is a reason for everything they do.
Less productive? Perhaps less productive for our selfish human benefit, but what about theirs? We don’t know why they do it, and until we do all we can do is speculate. But I am certain they know what’s up.

Nancy
Reply

As a new beekeeper, i’m happy to have found this post as I just observed one of my hives doing this!

Rusty
Reply

Nancy,

It’s fun to watch!

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