The bee behaviour that has scientist stumped

As an early example of animal domestication, bees have been observed and studied for millennia. However there is still much we do not fully understand about these amazing creatures. One such thing is the peculiar behaviour known as festooning.

During wax production and periods of comb building, bees can form a chain between frames, or on the exterior of a hive. Unlike other physical, communal behaviours such as breading or washboarding, festoons are formed by a single layer of bees that resembles a hanging garland. They create this chain by connecting small hooks on their legs, so they appear to be ‘holding hands’. These chains, or ‘festoons’ can be as long and deep as a frame and if two sides of a festoon are pulled apart, more bees will join to elongate the line, until one side finally let’s go.

But why do bees festoon? This question remains largely a mystery. It has been observed that bees are more likely to display festooning during the warmer months and periods of abundance, and it can even foreshadow swarming. These observations have led scientists and beekeepers to put forward some theories about this strange behaviour.

1. Festooning acts as a scaffold for bees to build comb

Some believe that the hanging lacework of bees acts as a scaffold for comb building. This theory is supported by the way in which festoons often occur between the top and bottom rungs of the frame. Critics of this theory puts forward that bees are capable of building comb without festooning. It also doesn’t explain why bees will festoon on the exterior of the hive.

2. Festooning could be a way for bees to measure space

Bees do not use tape measures. Some beekeepers and scientists believe however, that they may use their bodies as a unit of measurement, and that the festoon is a type of living ruler. The way in which bees understand space is still largely unknown, however, as demonstrated by the ‘bee space’ and the consistent sizes of comb cells, bees certainly do have some type of spatial understanding.

3. Connected to wax production

As festooning most commonly occurs when comb is being built or when it needs repairing, some believe that the behaviour is linked to the production of wax. The theory states that a festoon of bees may create more heat than individual bees secreting wax, and therefore makes the process more efficient. The necessary hive temperature for wax production and manipulation is between 31 and 37°C. The correlation with wax production is that we do not see festooning during colder periods.

Despite the validity of these theories, in the end we still do not know exactly why bees link legs to form these chains. The consensus is that this behaviour is somehow connected to comb building, but beyond that, the jury is still out.  International bee expert and good friend of Vatorex Prof. Jürgen Tautz summarizes our current understanding.

Vatorex AG, Pascal Brunner
1 September, 2022
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