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.
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
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.
Honey Bee Suite