What is Festooning: The Intriguing Behavior of Bees

What is Festooning: The Intriguing Behavior of Bees

What is festooning? Simply put, bees form living chains to facilitate the construction and maintenance of their combs within the hive. Delve into the roles and reasoning behind this complex behavior as we explore the engineering behind the hives and their impact on colony health, both in domestic and wild contexts.

Festooning bees in the wild

Let’s Explore Together!

  • Festooning is a unique behavior where bees form chains to build and repair wax comb inside the hive, serving various potential purposes aside from acting as a construction scaffold.

  • The reasons behind festooning are still not completely understood, with theories ranging from temperature regulation for wax production to spatial measurement within the hive.

  • Observing festooning through careful hive inspections can offer beekeepers insights into the hive’s condition, growth, and the bees’ complex social behaviors.

The Art of Festooning: Honey Bees' Unique Behavior

bees festooning between hive frames

Festooning bees in the hive

Bees are nature’s master builders. Like masons meticulously laying bricks, bees link together, forming an organic lace-like structure inside the hive. This unique behavior, known as festooning, is not simply for show. It serves a practical purpose in the hive’s architecture and maintenance. From building new combs to repairing old ones, festooning plays a crucial role in the hive’s structure and functionality.

The festooning behavior is not confused with the clustering behavior seen during swarming. While both involve bees clinging together, the purposes and dynamics differ significantly. Festooning primarily occurs inside the hive, with bees forming long interconnected chains across spaces where comb building or repair is needed.

Yet, the question remains - why do bees engage in this behavior? Is it merely for construction, or are there other purposes? What drives the bees to hang in unison, forming chains that resemble a jeweler’s masterpiece? Let’s unravel this mystery.

What is Festooning?

Festooning, in the world of honey bees, is akin to a human construction team assembling a scaffold before building a structure. The scaffold is a living chain of bees connected by their feet, forming a single line or curtain. Unlike typical clumps of bees, which are many layers deep, festoons consist of bees hanging together in a single line, only one level deep.

This behavior is integral to the creation of honeycomb, the vital structures of their hive. Imagine a team of engineers, architects, and construction workers, all rolled into one, dangling from a skyscraper, working together to lay the foundation and build the structure. That’s exactly what festooning bees do inside their hive.

honeycomb in hands

Raw Honeycomb from Bee Inspired

The Purpose of Festooning

Despite the observed connection to comb building, the specific purpose of festooning remains a mystery. Scientists have proposed several theories, but conclusive research is yet to be done. Some theories suggest that worker bees initiate festooning as a strategy for efficient comb construction or repair, using the chains as a scaffold. It is believed that festooning bees can recreate sections of comb more rapidly when working together than if individual bees worked separately.

Interestingly, bees have been observed festooning in scenarios not directly related to active comb construction, suggesting multiple functions for the behavior. Some theories suggest bees may use festooning to:

  • Measure distances within the hive known as bee space

  • Communicate with other bees

  • Regulate temperature and humidity

  • Coordinate tasks within the colony

Bees can also construct comb without forming festoons, indicating that it is not always a prerequisite for comb construction. This adds another layer to the complexity of this behavior.

While generating heat for wax production through festooning is a theory, conclusive evidence is yet to be demonstrated. In essence, festooning has been theorized to serve various purposes, ranging from acting as a scaffold, measuring the distance between combs, and enhancing the flow of raw beeswax to produce wax.

Decoding the Festooning Process

bees festooning on a hive frame

Festooning bees on a new frame

Now that we have a basic understanding of what festooning is and its possible purposes let’s delve deeper into the process. Like a jeweler meticulously crafts a necklace, festooning bees connect together, dangling in chains inside the hive, akin to a crafting a jeweled necklace. This is not a random occurrence but a precise process carried out by the worker bees in the colony.

Worker Bees: The Architects of Festooning

Worker bees, the diligent architects of the festooning process, play a crucial role in maintaining the hive. With active wax glands, these bees are responsible for creating festoons. This behavior is observed more frequently in larger colonies. Worker bees create festoons using small hooks on their legs to ‘hold hands,’ forming chains. They communicate through antennae contact to coordinate movement and maintain comb structure.

Festooning is more than just a construction activity; it’s an art form where bees, resembling a living bridge, build hive walls out of wax formed into hexagonal shapes. This behavior is observed when they create new comb or repair old comb. It’s a testament to their cooperative nature and the complex societal structure within the hive.

Theories Behind Festooning

Various theories attempt to decode the purpose of festooning. Some suggest that festooning helps bees by increasing in-hive temperatures to over 91°F, the optimal range for bees to secrete and manipulate beeswax, suggesting a link between this behavior and enhanced wax production. The festooning structure serves as a scaffold that facilitates comb construction and repair, with bees hanging in chains between frame rungs to support the comb building process.

Another theory posits that the consistent sizing of comb cells may be a result of bees using festooning to measure space in the hive, ensuring the maintenance of the crucial ‘bee space’ of around 3/8 of an inch. While festooning is believed to facilitate comb construction through scaffolding, pheromone release, and thermal regulation, questions persist due to observations like bees not excreting wax while in a festoon, hinting at additional purposes for the behavior.

Festooning in the Wild: A Look at Natural Bee Habitats

beekeepers harvesting honey

Festooning is not limited to managed colonies; it is also observed in the wild. Jürgen Tautz, a renowned German bee biologist, suggests that bee festooning may be a carry-over behavior from wild bees that form a net structure in tree hollows. Wild bees build combs in natural gum patterns, often repairing old combs and creating new ones using festooning techniques.

This opens up a new perspective on festooning, exploring its roots in the wild and its evolution in managed colonies.

Netting Behavior in Wild Bees

Festooning in managed bee colonies is thought to be an inherited behavior from wild bees. According to Tautz, the festooning technique could be a carry-over behavior from wild bees that form net structures around their construction areas in their natural habitat. These structures, however, do not necessarily relate to the comb construction process.

This suggests that the behavior we observe in managed colonies might have its roots in the wild. The festooning technique could have evolved over time, adapting to the needs of the bees in a hive. It’s a testament to the adaptive nature of bees and their ability to evolve and refine their behaviors for survival.

up close of honeycomb

Comb Construction in Natural Gum Patterns

Wild bees have a unique approach to comb construction. They build durable, irregularly shaped combs that mimic natural structures, often integrating plant resins and waxes in patterns resembling natural gums. These bees do not only construct new combs but also invest significant effort in repairing and maintaining old combs, which is a testament to their meticulous nature.

The maintenance of combs includes reinforcing and connecting comb structures, which may involve molding and manipulating existing comb material. In new comb construction, wild bees use festooning techniques to coordinate building efforts and ensure structural integrity. This showcases the resourcefulness and adaptability of wild bees, utilizing their environment to its fullest potential.

Observing Festooning in Action: Tips for Beekeepers

wild bees in a line Festooning

Beautiful single row of Festooning bees in the wild

Observing festooning is a wonderful way for beekeepers to understand and appreciate the intricacies of bee behavior. It provides a glimpse into bees' cooperative nature and complex societal structure. But how can you, as a beekeeper, increase your chances of witnessing this mesmerizing spectacle? The answer lies in conducting hive inspections during the warmer parts of the day when bees are more active.

By monitoring the frequency and location of festooning, beekeepers can gain valuable insights into the hive’s condition and growth requirements.

Conducting Hive Inspections

Hive inspections are a crucial part of beekeeping. Conducting these inspections during warmer parts of the day when bees are more active outside the hive can increase the likelihood of observing festooning behaviors without major interference to the bees. This allows you to observe the bees in their natural behavior and minimizes disruption to their routine.

Before inspecting the hive, it’s advisable to smoke the hive lightly. This is a standard procedure to calm the bees and minimize the chance of bees becoming agitated and disrupting the festooning chains that might be present during inspections. Remember, your goal is to observe and understand, not to interfere.

beekeeper holding a frame from a beehive

Performing a hive inspection

Handling Frames Gently

During hive inspections, handling the frames gently is important to avoid breaking the festoons bees have constructed. Like a master craftsman handling a delicate work of art, beekeepers must exercise care while handling the frames.

The bees have spent considerable time and energy building these structures, and as a bee lover, it’s our responsibility to respect their hard work.

Monitoring Festooning Frequency and Location

Monitoring the frequency and location of festooning can serve as a valuable tool for beekeepers. It can provide insights into the hive’s condition and growth requirements. Just as meteorologists study weather patterns to predict climate changes, beekeepers can study festooning patterns to understand the needs and behaviors of their bees.

Observing where and when festooning occurs can provide valuable information about the colony’s health and development. For instance, an increase in festooning could indicate a thriving hive ready to grow or swarm, informing beekeepers’ management decisions. On the flip side, a decrease in festooning could signal potential issues that need to be addressed.

That’s a Wrap on Festooning 

In this journey through the world of bees, we have explored the mesmerizing behavior of festooning. From the intricacies of the festooning process to the theories behind its purpose, we have unraveled the mystery of this fascinating phenomenon. We’ve also ventured into the wild, observing how festooning manifests in natural bee habitats and how it has evolved in managed colonies. Finally, for our beekeeping enthusiasts, we’ve shared tips on observing and monitoring festooning in their hives.

Festooning, a behavior as fascinating as the creatures performing it, is a testament to the intricate world of bees. It’s a reminder of the incredible complexity and beauty of nature. And for us, as observers and caretakers, it’s an opportunity to appreciate and learn from these remarkable creatures. So, the next time you observe a hive, take a moment to marvel at the festooning bees, the master builders of the bee world.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is an example of a festoon?

You can see an example of festoon in the temples, which are festooned with lights, creating a beautiful decoration. A festooned number of outdoor lights featured in a summer garden party is common, balloons, or flowers, it's a great example of a festoon.

What is festooning in dentistry?

Festooning in dentistry refers to carving the denture base to mimic the natural tissue contours the denture is replacing. It helps create a more natural and comfortable fit.

What is the meaning of festooning?

Festooning means to cover or decorate something with many objects, such as lights, flowers, or balloons, especially for decoration. It can also mean shaping them into festoons or hanging them on something. So, festooning is about decorating or adorning something with numerous small objects or decorations.

What is festooning in bees?

Festooning in bees is a unique behavior where they link together to form chains or meshes, primarily for building and maintaining wax structures in the hive. It's an important aspect of their hive construction.

Does festooning occur in wild bees?

Yes, festooning does occur in wild bees, as they use this technique to repair old combs and create new ones in natural gum patterns.

Updated March 3, 2024

Kara holding a hive frame in doorway of cabin

About the Author

Kara waxes about the bees, creates and tests recipes with her friend Joyce, and does her best to share what she’s learning about the bees, honey, ingredients we use and more. Read more about Kara