Festooning–Garlands and Lace

Have you ever started to separate two frames during inspection and found them to be attached by chains of bees, seemingly sticking together as if caught in a web?  As you carefully widen the gap, the bees stretch out elastically until they can reach no further. . . then snap apart.

What on earth are the bees doing in these paper-doll chains or garlands, or sometimes sheets of living lace?

Living lacework tapestry in drone frame (Photo: Rusty Berlew, Honey Bee Suite, 2016)

They are connected by clasping each other’s feet—like holding hands!   

And the behavior is called “festooning.” 

Observant beekeepers and some bee-scientists speculate that these nets of workers are vital to the task of COMB-BUILDING in the hive, in one or more of the following ways:

Festooning between frames (Image: Jackie Woodcock) 
  • To measure the required spacing of comb under construction, using bee-body dimension
  • To provide a scaffolding upon which other workers walk and use as a building platform
  • To help promote or facilitate wax production.

On the last point, some speculate that the heat generated by the bees in and around the festoon is sufficient (33-36ᵒC, about 91-97ᵒF) for creating and working wax, and that the stretching of the bees’ abdominal areas where wax glands are located stimulates wax production (e.g., Woodcock 2020).

It is a behavior more readily viewed in top-bar or other hives without the rigid structure of Langstroth boxes and frames1 or in a full-functioning observation hive, but in any case, not easily watched in detail without disruption of the bees’ work.

Bees Bridge two parts of a bee swarm (Photo: Siraj Virtina, wildflowermeadows.com 2015)

Other functions? Based on observations, festoons might stitch sections of a swarm together as the dense mass hangs or rests in its temporary location.

Personally, I have observed a sheet of festooning bees covering the inside of the hive entrance-hole like a curtain during driving rain, and all the while, individual links rotated in and out of the lacework. The purpose seemed to be to keep the hive dry inside. The rotation spared the lives of drenched bees in the rain-shielding festoon—just as in the winter cluster, heater bees rotate from the outside of the ball inward, changing places with their counterparts that have had time to warm up again.

It reminded me of the way fire ants and other ant species will link their feet to make a mat or a sphere that can float across a creek or flood-water rivulet, with queen, brood and other workers riding the float or safe inside the sphere, and with a rotation ensuring that no individual stays in the water too long.2

Detail of fire ant floating mat viewed from underneath (Image: BBC-Earth) 

I studied ants in the desert southwest for my doctoral research, and by chance I was present during rare, major flash floods. I found that even the desert harvester ants that were my focus will exhibit this behavior during such extreme conditions.

There is by no means a consensus among scientists about the exact function of the bees’ festooning.3 However, it is a fascinating behavior, an exciting surprise to happen upon in our own hives, and something that is clearly of importance to the bees

I agree wholeheartedly with the great bee biologist, Dr. Jürgen Tautz, who wrote that “[t]he more we are able to penetrate the hidden lives of the honeybee, the greater our amazement, and also the deeper our ambition to explore this wonder-world.”

NOTES

  1. Except perhaps in “drone frames” used in Langstroth hives for varroa mite management (i.e., mite removal).
  2. See a living life-raft of fire ants in this BBC-Earth video:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MJ4IjC512bg.
  3. Dr. Jürgen Tautz, a notable German bee biologist at the University of Würzburg (who is credited with nearly 250 excellent publications on bees) is most often cited in claiming that the function of bee festoons is not known—but nobody has provided an actual reference when “quoting” him! Rather, they simply provide the following undocumented sentence: “The function of the living chain that is formed by bees where new combs are being  built or old combs repaired, is completely unknown.”
REFERENCES
Berlew, Rusty, “Lacework Between the Frames,” honeybeesuite.com, 2006.
Delaplane, Keith , “More on Comb Building,” American Bee Journal,  January 1, 2016.
Tautz, Jürgen, The Buzz About Bees: Biology of a Superorganism, Springer, 2007.   

Woodcock, Jackie, “Honeybee Festooning: Stretching for the Comb,” Adirondack Almanack, 2020. 

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