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 lace-like sheets between the frames. Sometimes the pattern is as wide and as deep as the frame itself, but often it is smaller.
If you slowly separate two frames during the spring comb-building season, you can see the bees stretching between the frames like wires on a power pole. Separate the frames far enough and the bees will eventually release their hold. 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, and some say the structure acts like a scaffolding from which the bees build comb. Others say bees can only produce wax from the festooning position.
Disagreement on the purpose of festooning
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.
Honey bees always keep us guessing, and festooning is nearly as mysterious as washboarding. In a way, not knowing why these behaviors occur, makes them all the more beautiful. Be sure to take a look.
Honey Bee Suite