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If your bees want to beard, let them

You have bearding bees, so what should you do? Some people scrape them into a bucket and dump them back in the hive. Some people use smoke to disperse the miscreant mob. And believe it or not, some blast them away with the garden hose. All of these sound uncomfortably like radical SWAT tactics: It’s summer in the city so let’s hammer everyone into submission.

What is bearding?

We say bees are bearding when they gather in groups at or near the hive entrance. They may cover large portions of the hive in a single layer. They may form thick mounds on the landing board, or they may drape themselves in neat bundles from the bottom of the hive. The bees may be fanning or they may be still. They may stay in place for a few hours or a few days. They look really cool.

Why do bees beard?

Bearding bees are reacting to conditions within the colony. Generally, honey bees beard for one of two reasons–either the colony is preparing to swarm or the internal nest temperature is too high. Since a swarm only occurs once or perhaps several times per year, most of the bearding we see is a result of heat. If you look carefully, you can usually distinguish between the two.

Before a swarm

Worker bees preparing to swarm swallow large amounts of honey in order to prepare for the arduous task of moving to a new location and building a home. To maximize the fuel they can take with them, the bees eat the honey soon before the swarm takes off, hours before, or perhaps a day or two. Because of their full stomachs, the bees become lethargic. They move slowly if at all, and they accumulate on the front of the hive and wait for the signal to leave. Bees ready to swarm are not fanning, they are just waiting. I’ve heard people call this “the calm before the swarm.”

However calm the beard may be, however, there may be intense activity nearby as a few dozen scout bees come and go. The scouts, reporting to each other on their real estate finds and communicating conditions in the hive, are as busy as bees. When the time is right, the scouts will alert the bearding mass of bees that the time is now. And off they go.

Temperature control

However, as I mentioned earlier, swarming doesn’t happen that often, but bearding does. Bees may beard weeks on end during the hottest part of summer with no intention of going anywhere. Although they appear to be listless and lazy, they are actually performing an important function: they are keeping the brood nest at a reasonable temperature.

Honey bees are masters of temperature control and have a number of ways to keep the all-important brood nest at the proper point. In the winter, they may press their thoraces against capped brood cells or vibrate their wing muscles to generate heat. In summer, they spread water on the cell rims for evaporative cooling, they fan their wings to set up air currents, and they expand and contract the size of the cluster as temperatures rise and fall. But workers may also reduce the heat load in the hive by moving to the outside on those hot and humid days. No, we haven’t read their HVAC manual, but this is what they appear to be doing and it makes sense.

Every single bee body is like a little space heater, generating heat as it goes about the business of living. But the all-important brood nest must be kept at the proper temperature in order to produce healthy bees. Just as too cold is bad, too hot is bad. By removing themselves to the outside of the hive, the workers reduce the number of tiny space heaters and increase the distance between bees which, in turns, improves the ventilation.

What should you do with bearding bees?

First of all, don’t panic. As I just explained, every bee beard is not a sign of an impending swarm. In fact, it seldom signals a swarm. Second of all, realize that even if your bees are going to swarm, forcing them back in the hive, choking them with smoke, or hosing them down will do nothing to stop it. Instead, take a few minutes to study the beard carefully. If the bearding bees have extended abdomens, if they are barely moving, if the beard is in the center of a flurry of activity, and if you are in or near swarm season, you can quickly split the hive to avoid the swarm.

If it is especially hot or humid, if it is not swarm season, if multiple colonies are behaving the same way, if the drones are being tossed, or you have recently entered a nectar dearth, just leave your bees alone. If you try to force them back in the hive, you may be interfering with temperature regulation of the brood nest. Believe me, it is arrogant to think you know more than they do about brood rearing. Scooping them up and dumping back in the hive is micromanagement, something that’s not good for you or for them. Just. Leave. Them. Alone.

Bearding and nectar dearth

Bearding bees on the front of a top-bar hive.
Bees spend a hot August afternoon bearding on the front of a top-bar hive. © Rusty Burlew.

My own observation is that bearding is more closely associated with nectar dearth than temperature. On super hot days during a nectar flow, the bees manage to stay busy. They come and go at an extraordinary rate and all colony members are kept busy putting up the harvest.  But during a dearth on a sweltery hot day, a beard is likely to form. Since there is nothing to collect, and it’s hot inside the hive, they tend to collect in beards on the outside.

I hate to anthropomorphize, but… No. Scratch that. I love to anthropomorphize, especially about bees. On those hot summer days, those bees want to laze on the porch. They want to drink beer, check Facebook, and gossip about the prom dress that made Henrietta look like a hooker. They want to complain about the heat, men, and politicians. They want to be left alone.

Let them beard

In short, make a decision. Try to determine if the beard is due to swarming or heat. If you decide swarming is the problem, you’ll have to act fact because those bees are preparing for take-off.

If you decide the beard is due to heat, you can add ventilation if you want. You can add a box to give them more space, But other than that, walk away. Don’t  break up the beard. Don’t worry if they stay out overnight. Don’t worry if they stay out for days. In the end, bearding bees can can take care of themselves. We beekeepers have a lot of things to worry about but, for most of the year, bearding doesn’t qualify.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

Comments

Cathy Wilde
Reply

I can’t believe people actually chase their bees back into the hive. WHAAAT? What is this desire for control?? Thank you for yet another great article. The paragraph about the front porch is brilliant and made me laugh out loud.

Thanks!

molly murphy
Reply

I just always thought my bees were cool hipsters, or just trying to be ‘cool’ anyways.

Ray
Reply

Good piece Rusty, and timely. Believe it or not we are actually getting some warm days in the UK and I am seeing bearding (and lots of swarms), and, probably not connected, washboarding. I’ve not had the latter on any of my colonies previously but one this year has been at it for several days with no sign of it stopping. What are your views on washboarding Rusty?

Brad Raspet
Reply

It’s rare in the Northwest, because we don’t get a lot of hot summer days; but when I see it I just crack the deeps and or supers a bit (move one or more back 1/8th of an inch). The increase in ventilation usually means everyone is back inside within 15 minutes. It’s important not to make the crack too big so has to prevent robbing during a dearth.

Ann Baker
Reply

We always leave our bearding bees “be” in the heat of summer, offering the shade, some ventilation and always a water source. That said, this year we have two completely different hive behavior: one hive has been bearding big time during a recent heat wave while the other, not so much. Is this an indication of overall hive health?

Nancy Ogg
Reply

Rusty,

What about when 4 of you from bee club arrive at 7:30 AM to help a fifth member move 4 hives to their brand new hive stand, and they’ve been bearding all night, so they couldn’t be taped in?

Answer: we moved the two that were the easiest to get at, and postponed the others for cooler weather.
One, when we were getting it strapped and clamped, turned out not to have a bottom board! Woo-HOO!

Only 2 of us got stung, me twice and the owner 3 times.

Then you post about bearding! Excellent timing!

Nan
Corinth, KY

Beverly Rampey
Reply

My bees seem to be “bearding” out of the front entrance, but just 2 or three bees in depth. The entire opening is full of bees but they seem to just sit there. Sometimes other bees fly in and step over the ones already there – go in with no trouble or disturbance – and the bees sitting there just close back up. I didn’t think of bearding because it’s been in the 90s for over a week although our humidity is almost non-existence (Colorado). This hive swarmed about a month ago. I wasn’t unhappy because it has always been a hot hive and I hoped that moving some of those bees out might bring the aggressiveness down a notch. Not so much yet. What’s the general consensus – bearding or swarming-prep?

Jodi Waldrip
Reply

Once again, the voice of reason and calm. I love seeing my bees bearding; hanging out having a cool night be on the deck! Thanks for doing what you do!

Mark Mark McGonigle
Reply

This was a great article! I love the part about Henrietta… She did look pretty trashy in that dress :D.

Infidel
Reply

Hi Rusty,

Yeah, the first time I saw mine doing this, I was sweltering in a suit, because I was going to pack them up, to take them home. They we’re my first swarm catch, and I had moved the hive to my cousin’s, for a few weeks. That 3 feet, or 3 miles thing. It was after dark, and they we’re covering the front of the hive. I quickly changed my mind. So, I took my suit off and hung out with the girls, for a while, just watching. I thought I could hear little “phssts”, from the bee beers being opened.

I caught another swarm, in a trap box, and when I went to get it down from the tree, at night, I could make out something strange on the top of the box. As I got up the ladder, I could see a large bunch of the girls, hanging out on top of the box, and peering over the edge, to see what that weird light was. Yeah, I left them alone too.

Rusty
Reply

Infidel,

“I could hear little “phssts…” Love it.

Cal
Reply

Maybe there’s more bearding during mid-summer dearth due to less evaporative cooling going on inside than during the earlier flow.

Lloyd Seested
Reply

I recently treated 15 hives with formicpro. Some bearding occurred even though temps were not what I usually associate with bearding. I think humidity plays a role and during this treatment humidity was quite high. The bearding built up early evening as humidity increased. Particularly high early in the morning but decreased to next to nothing as the sun came out and it warmed up.

Rusty
Reply

Lloyd,

Interesting observation. I will look at that more carefully.

Amanda
Reply

I am a first year beekeeper with two hives, and this year we went from freezing weather to temperatures in the mid-nineties. My bees have been bearding in the late afternoon all summer, but I know we are coming up on a nectar dearth and am starting to see signs of robbing. Bees swarming my hummingbird feeders, and lots of bees and wasps checking out all sides of my hives, but no actual visible fighting yet. I installed robber boards earlier this weekend during some cooler weather, but the temperature is going to be back up in the mid 90s in a few days. Since I installed the screens, my bees haven’t bearded at all, but the space beneath the robber boards is really filled with bees.

I am really worried about them being overheated (they are in full sun, there is very little shade available) as soon as the temperature rises again. Should I take the robbing boards back off and let them take their chances? I can try covering them with a wet sheet, but my work schedule is erratic and I may be out of town for the next week. They already have slatted racks for extra ventilation, and I popped the telescoping covers during a couple of heat warnings we had a few weeks ago for increased airflow, but that was before the wasps and other bees started checking out my hives. Any ideas?

Dave
Reply

Hi Rusty,

I have a hive that does a decent job building up, but has produced very little honey, if at all.

They, and a daughter hive next to it, have a lot of bees hanging out on the landing board. For every ten bees the hive next to it launches it launches one or two. Our blackberry flow is just ending but there is still lots of flowers and nectar out.

I did notice that the gathering at the entrance became much more evident when I removed the reducer.

Have you seen this before? Is it possible that the bees are just not honey producers and it needs to be requeened?

Rusty
Reply

Dave,

Every colony is different just like every child is different. You can’t expect two colonies to behave the same way.

Dave
Reply

Hi Rusty,

This same hive is hauling in tons of pollen, so much that they have many frames of it pollen stored up. In one box, they have 3 frames side by side – all next to the brood nest.

Is this just a pollen collection gold mine waiting to be tapped?

They are frustrating because when I give them extra frames, they store more pollen, and don’t use them for brood or honey.

Dave
Reply

Thanks for the link, Rusty.

They recently superseded the queen, and if anything, the rate of collection is increasing. I’ll continue to monitor – I am getting tempted to take more drastic action.

For now, perhaps I’ll just redistribute their pollen frames to hives that don’t have as much – freeing those bees up for other work.

Ramona Simms
Reply

Question, we live in the Pacific Northwest Washington State we have some unseemly warm weather although it’s cold again so I went out there this afternoon and I have bearding in the front of the hive even though it’s only 60 degrees out prior to that we’ve had about three weeks of upper 70s and upper 80s should this be something I should be concerned about should I go ahead and look inside maybe they need more room and add a super? There are 2 brood boxes on it now it’s May 15th 2019 that’s why I’m asking it seems a little early for bearding here.

Rusty
Reply

Ramona,

As I say in the article, bearding should not be a worry. They can have plenty of space and still beard.

Ouka/quiles
Reply

Our bees scared me yesterday. I thought they were ready to swarm. They were bearding. So freaking cool. It’s such a amazing and cool thing too watch.

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