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
I’m writing a book on bees and would like permission to use your festooning picture and some of the info you provide.
Just a hello, and thanks for your excellent blog work. I linked to your entry on festooning, as it is a succinct and understandable description. Thanks!
Lovely picture! Next week, I am using the story of bees’ honey-making process to illuminate the Creation story for 3 adults I meet with. With your permission, I’d love to use this photo as an example of festooning.
Your blog is wonderfully instructive. Keep up the good work.
Thank you for writing. The photo was not taken by me but by Maja Dumat (screen name: blumenbiene) and it is posted on her Flickr account. She has listed the photo under a creative commons license, but you must give her credit for it, similar to what I did in the caption of the photo.
Never knew it was called festooning. I was at two different beekeeping workshops this year and this phenomenon came up for discussion. In both seminars, it was said that this type of chaining of bees is indicative of a colony being queenright. Has anyone else heard this?
An old-timer told me that the hive is queenright when the bees chain!
I don’t believe it’s an indication of a hive being queen right. I have two new hives. Then I checked the hives this weekend to see if the queens had been released from the queen cage. Both hives were festooning, but one hive the queen was dead in the cage.
How about this? When the frames are together there is only a bee width . . . no room to festoon, lol. Anyway, what would anyone do if suddenly your house started to move apart under you? You would grab on to something and hang on! Do you see this behavior in undisturbed hives?
I love your idea! But yes, festooning occurs even with no interference from us.
Something I’ve not yet seen the bees do. Now that I know they do it I’ll be watching for it. Thanks for another very informative post–huge help with my learning about bees!
I keep bees in warre hives. My hives are frameless and I work without foundation. In my windowed hives I have see festoons in the empty supers underneath the lowest combed super, spanning the width of the box, or from bottom to top. Sometimes there are single bodied chains, sometimes complex webs. It’s fascinating–I would really love to know what they are doing–seemingly idle.
So far the scaffolding theory seems most logically to me, as I do witness bees using these chains as infrastructure to climb up on.
I do rely on that old time advice that festooning indicates queen-rightness. The caveat there is that queenright can mean a queen (however bad), a queen cell, a virgin or a laying worker situation.
We have 2 warre hives. My husband built in Plexiglas windows on one side of each super box (currently three on each). Using the wood cut out he, glued insulation foam on the inside, a knob on the outside, and a wood latch. I check on the bees just about every day. Today the the temps are in the mid-nineties with heat index of 104. Usually when it is hot like this I notice many staying inside buzzing, I assume to keep the air circulation. Today for the first time I saw what you described as festoon in both hives. Both top boxes have been full of honeycomb and honey. The second one down they are starting to getting filled up, it was here I saw them doing the festoon. Some were one thick strand, some were many thick. I will keep watch, not sure if it was the heat, or something else.
I’d cleaned a deep box and some frames and left them outside to air-out. A passing swarm found a gap where I’d left a top resting on the frames and apparently moved in. When i looked inside, three of the frames held large, thin (2 or 3 deep) curtains of bees, hanging neatly from the frame tops. As I moved them carefully into a proper brood box I could see they swayed back and forth in a liquid or gelatinous way. A week later I looked in; they were working on lovely brood combs in all of those frames. What I’d seen was apparently festooning, yes? Over the last seven weeks they seem to have progressed well and settled in.
Yes. That was it. Fun to watch.
I’ve seen bees trying to make a start of building comb along a ‘lacquered’ surface where the wax couldn’t make a bond and just littered the bottom of the ‘hive’ (it was inside a message table). This was the second time I’d found bees that went verticle in reverse. The bigger one was 400 pounds standing up under a home.
I’m a 10-year beekeeper, not particularly concerned but perplexed with a new observation this year. All my fresh new honeycomb supers, both foundationless comb, and comb “from” foundation is either brown coated or being built brown. No brood involved, my festooning bees seem to be building brown, tracking brown pollen (mud-like) or maybe the wax is oxidizing quickly. I’m accustomed to seeing fresh white virgin wax comb. I accepted whatever my bees produce. I live in eastern Tennessee and we are experiencing a very wet year. I’m just writing in search of commentary and or discussion. (Perhaps this observation would have gone best under brown brood comb but was unable to find comment box under it.)
Thank you for any insight.
Sometimes bees re-use comb instead of secreting new comb, especially before a lot of nectar is available. Could that be the case here?
I noticed this festooning in my hives as well. When I ask the bees about it they just said, ‘Were just hanging around not to be confused with hanging out which peoples call bearding’. Good enough for me! Appreciate your blog, I’ve been blessed with the info!