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Washboarding bees arockin’ and alickin’

A strange honey bee behavior known as “washboarding” or “rocking” continues to elude an explanation, but it is fun to watch. Worker bees gather in large groups—either inside the hive or out—and rock back and forth while seeming to lick the surface beneath them. The motion has been likened to that of scrubbing clothes on a washboard.

Katie Bohrer and Jeffrey Pettis of the USDA-ARS Bee Research Lab studied washboarding bees and discovered a number of things.

  • The washboarders were all worker bees.
  • They started washboarding at 13 days old.
  • The peak amount of washboarding occurred in workers between 15-25 days old.
  • Washboarding increased from about 8 a.m. to about 2 p.m. and then remained constant to as late as 9 p.m.
  • When given three different surfaces, the washboarding increased as the surface became more textured. Slate produced the most washboarding, followed by unpainted wood, and then glass. The surface-type data, however, did not produce statistically significant results.

Some beekeepers have noticed that washboarding occurs more frequently at the end of a nectar flow and others swear the bees will “clean up” any particles you place on the hive entrance. Other sources claim the behavior “polishes” the surface and thus eliminates rough spots where pathogenic organisms might congregate. Beyond speculation, however, no one has been able to provide a concrete explanation.

For a really cool video of rocking bees, click on the link below. If you look carefully, you will notice that the rear four legs of each bee tend to stay in one place, while the front two legs do all the work. This outstanding video was provided by Alexander Wild.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

Comments

sarnik
Reply

Thanks for your good explain.

Gerry
Reply

I have only one hive out of five that are washboarding, and man are they getting the laundry done! It sure is fun to watch…I wish we really knew something more definitive as to why…

Nicola bee
Reply

I also have one hive out of five that is washboarding. Last night there were only a few bees, tonight a whole laundry full.

Joel
Reply

2012 first summer ever observed this phenomena in 53 years experience. No other beekeeper or researcher could explain this. My observation is all of these occurrences have been close to neonicotinoide-treated corn seed. French scientists support that theory in that, in drought peroids, the collection of corn pollen is increased and introduced into the food chain of the beehive. Heavy bee loss was observe that following year.

Rusty
Reply

Joel,

I’m not sure I follow. Are you saying washboarding is related to neonicotinoids?

Kari
Reply

It doesn’t look normal to me. I would guess it is pathological behavior because it is a waste of their time with no apparent benefit to the bees. I can verify that both my beehives started this when nectar flow slowed. Maybe I will grab a few and send them off for pesticide testing.

Kari

Rusty
Reply

Kari,

Trouble is, beekeepers have reported seeing this behavior for centuries, long before pesticides were manufactured. Just because we don’t know the reason they do it doesn’t mean there isn’t a reason.

carol Y.
Reply

I have a very hygienic hive that came as a nuc from hives that haven’t been treated for verroa for years, good surviving bees. They washboard and I’m wondering if maybe bees inadvertently pick up mites from flowers and some of these mites fall off when they land and these workers are scrubbing around as a hygienic behavior. I do see them ‘find’ something and they seem to stop their scrubbing and fiddle around and then start their search all over again. Whatever this behavior is, it has been interesting to watch. I must say, I am disappointed that nobody has figured it out yet. Ahh, yet one more bee mystery.

carol Y.
Reply

In my quest to find an answer I came upon this from someone on another bee site:

hese bees are applying propolis to “varnish” the surfaces. If you look at the inside (unpainted) surfaces of an older brood box, you can see the result of several years of the work – you get wood that is clearly varnished with a visible layer of propolis. Bees of wax-drawing age perform this task after nectar flows, when there is no need to draw more comb, due to the drop in nectar coming in the door.

If you look carefully, you can see each bee swipe the surface with their mandibles every so often – that’s the application of varnish, and the footwork is the polishing and spreading of the varnish.

Michael M
Reply

We observed this behavior on 1 of the 2 new hives we own. It reminds me of the extensive grooming that cats engage in. They do this to eliminate the various scents that have accumulated on their faces, since much of their world is scent-based. Could it be possible that the washboarding serves to remove redundant , spurious, or obsolete chemical messages (pheromones, pollens, trace materials) from the entrance? Just a theory.

red
Reply

I associate washboarding with honey bees wasting time and energy. Generally, when I observe washboarding, the bees seem to be ignoring important tasks like comb building, brood rearing, and nectar/pollen gathering to instead endlessly polish the landing board. My washboarding colonies just seem to be less productive.

Neshan
Reply

Mother nature is far wiser than we are. I don’t think that anything a bee does can be considered a waste of time and energy. There is a reason for everything they do.
Less productive? Perhaps less productive for our selfish human benefit, but what about theirs? We don’t know why they do it, and until we do all we can do is speculate. But I am certain they know what’s up.

Nancy
Reply

As a new beekeeper, i’m happy to have found this post as I just observed one of my hives doing this!

Rusty
Reply

Nancy,

It’s fun to watch!

William
Reply

I came here looking for an answer to this behavior. Too much diversity so I will post my impression. Understand that I have no preconceived notions as I am not a beekeeper and know nothing about bees. A [colony] took up residence in a tree last year and I have had the pleasure of watching these creatures. I saw them doing this washboarding thing so I went up real close and looked. Trust me, these guys are polishing the surface. Now as to the why ………….? I will leave that to you good folks.

MB
Reply

I am a new beekeeper with my first colony of hived bees. I had a bee tree (150 yr old hollow beech tree) on my land that fell in a bad storm 7 years ago. It was full of comb from a hive at least 15 years old according to a local beekeeper who collected the bees to save them. So from that point on I have been interested in trying my hand at keeping the little critters.

I’ve had my nuc hive since late May and these bees are highly productive. They filled the bottom deep brood box packed full by the 3rd week of June and filled all but 3 outside frames of the second deep brood box by July 4th. I just put a honey super on with empty wire frames to act as extra space and to allow them a little extra ventilation with the summer heat coming as late July and August set in.

This last week I observed my new hive doing this washboarding on the hive entrance. Since my hive boxes are very new and freshly ‘sealed’ with natural tung oil, I thought maybe they were scrubbing the oil from the wood. These bees are also from a hygienic strain that has ankle-biter genes in the queen. I’ve been checking for mites and these little buggers do bite the legs off mites while cleaning and will haul out any white larva with mites on them and toss them out the hive door for the ants (they will kill carpenter ants as well, I’ve seen a few battles on the ground in front of the hive if the carpenters get too close even with the cinnamon border. They are brutal about clean in the hive).

I have had a very tiny amount of mites in the brood area and no beetles during my hive checks. So my very novice guess would be this is may be a hygienic behavior.

John in Michigan
Reply

I am a new beekeeper with regular frames in a horizontal hive. I see this same washboarding and it reminds me of dancers doing the rumba — back and forth, back and forth. I also wish there was an explanation because these little girls absolutely fascinate me.

Debbie
Reply

Rusty, have you ever seen them washboard for over a month, never going back inside? I have a hive that has done this. I had to make a split and requeened the parent hive end of July and the bees are still washboarding. I would think they would be busy with the new queen. I wonder if this is a period where they just don’t have anything to do? or, the coffers are full and they are resting. They don’t go inside when it rains or at night, they have been outside now for a whole month. Any thoughts? Thanks !

Rusty
Reply

Debbie,

I don’t know. That is really weird.

Rikhi Ganase
Reply

Hello Rusty,

Am now up to three hives and all three appear to be of similar strength, very strong, and the queens are laying regularly. We are into our 5th month of the dry season (our honey flow season which ends in June when the rains come) but they don’t seem to be finding much nectar out there. They are certainly bringing in a lot of pollen though. The absence of hummingbirds around our feeders may be indicative of nectar in the field, but I’m not too sure. Perhaps they have found a better neighbourhood!

18April20: I had one super on each which they had begun to work on (some honey being stored) and the brood boxes had a high occupancy with a lot of sealed brood (along with the pollen).

25April20: Noticed many bees washboarding all over the front of one of the hives (with a large concentration on the landing board, getting in the way of the foragers!) and they are still doing it today, three weeks later. They are showing no signs of wanting to go home. They did disperse briefly back into the hive when I smoked them during an inspection on the 2nd May but they were back out right after. They stay out night and day even when it rains. Thought I’d share this, for what it’s worth.

And thank you for all your wise thoughts and recommendations. I do enjoy reading your writings.
Rikhi – Main Ridge rain forest, island of Tobago.

Gregory Boon
Reply

Gosh, I’ve been keeping bees off and on for 45 years and have never seen this. I live in the UK.

Frankie Williams
Reply

I’m also in the UK and mine have been doing it the past few days, rain or shine.

Nick Derrick
Reply

I’m also in the UK, and one of my hives have been doing this, day and night. Searching led me here.
This hive has a locally mated queen.

I agree with a couple of the others here. Appears to be polishing. Mandibles touch the wood, then the bees walk back and forth, over that spot, forming a line under the entrance.

I’ve managed to get pictures and videos.

Alasdair Mackenzie
Reply

Hi Nick. I believe its their action when propolising their hive.

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