Bearding Behavior in Bees: Don’t Panic, This is NOT a Swarm!
Temperature and Humidity
It’s a hot day. It’s humid. It’s hot AND humid outside, so what do you think it’s like INSIDE the hive? It’s hot! So what are honey bees to do? They hang out on the outside of the hive. You will see huge clumps of bees, which is bee bearding. Sometimes I think it literally looks like someone’s beard with the way they’re hanging down from the entrance of the hive.
New beekeepers see this strange behavior for the first time and sometimes think the bees are getting ready to swarm. But don’t worry, this is a natural behavior. They don’t want to leave the hive; they simply want to cool it down!
Think of the hive as the bees’ house. It’s not air-conditioned, so it’s hot and stuffy inside. The more bees that are in the colony means that there are that many more bodies inside that are adding to the heat. When the temperature and humidity level becomes unbearable, the bees are going to hang out on their front porch–which, in this case, is the front of their hive. They will enjoy the cooler air outside while helping to maintain the temperature of their hive.
Colony Population and Space
Bearding is actually a sign of a strong colony. It usually indicates that the colony has a large population of healthy bees. While you may see some bearding during the heat of the day, you will likely see a much larger clump of bees in the late afternoon when the foragers are returning for the evening.
This large mass of bees will continue to hang out on the outside of the hive body throughout the night. If you have a rainy day, do not be surprised if the bees continue to hang out on the outside of the hive. When I was a new beekeeper, I thought they’d go inside to stay dry, but these dedicated bees remained outside in the rain.
If the bees don’t have a good ventilation and airflow system, then they may need to beard to help maintain the hive’s internal temperature. If you see bearding, but it’s not really a hot summer day, then take a closer look at the front of the hive.
Do you have an entrance reducer on the hive? Entrance reducers are a great and necessary tool for smaller colonies to help them protect their home. However, if the population in the colony has exploded, then you might be looking at a traffic jam. When I’ve seen bearding, but it’s not terribly hot, I will look at the other hives. Are they also bearding? If not, what’s the difference?
When this happened recently, it was because the entrance reducer was still blocking the hive entrance. It’s a good sign to see so many bees! I took off the entrance reducer, and the next day, everything looked back to normal. This particular hive had outgrown its hive reducer. The bearding was a sign of a traffic jam of bees trying to enter and exit the hive!
Now if there is still an entrance reducer on the hive and you’re expecting some extremely hot and humid weather, then it might be a good idea to remove the entrance reducer. This will help give the bees adequate airflow during the hot weather. Keep the entrance reducer handy in case you start to see problems such as robbers. But if it looks like your colony has a good population, and you see a lot of bee traffic at the entrance of the hive, then they will probably benefit from the additional entry space.
Maintaining Hive Temperature
Bearding is only one method that bees use to help maintain a stable temperature inside the hive. Worker bees will fan their wings to help circulate the air to cool it down. Think of a fan moving the air around your house–except the bees are using their wings to create their own fans! So you may also see and hear a lot of fanning bees during the warmer months of the year.
How to Help Keep the Hive Cool
There are a few things beekeepers can do to help keep the hive cool. You can use a screened bottom board to help with the ventilation, but keep in mind it could give you too much ventilation during the winter months if you live in a cooler climate.
You can also try to prevent overcrowding by assessing what they need during a hive inspection. Does it look like their population is exploding? Do they have enough space for all of the bees or do they seem to be pouring out everywhere as you inspect? Does the queen have enough room to lay eggs?
If the hive is full of eggs, brood, and resources, but there isn’t much space for the queen to lay, you may want to expand the brood nest. Or are they ready for some supers? Make sure they have a big enough hive–or house–to fit their population.
Bearding vs. Swarming: Which is it?
I see so many new beekeepers panic over bearding. It’s a new experience, and when they start to see this strange beard formation on the front of the hive, they often jump to the conclusion that the bees are getting ready to swarm!
But bearding and swarming behaviors are actually very different. Bearding, for instance, is when the bees leave the hive and form clusters that literally take on a beard-like shape on the landing board or hive exterior. You may notice fanning behavior to reduce the heat inside. Bearding bees are usually still and passive. Think of people rocking in chairs on their front porch.
Swarming, however, involves a lot of bees flying and leaving the hive. As you watch, more and more bees will be leaving the hive and flying, and they may form a clump in a nearby tree or structure. They will not be hanging out on the front of the hive. Here are a few tips to help differentiate between swarming and bearding:
- Time of day: Swarming generally happens during the day, while bearding will become very prominent in the early evening.
- Season: Swarms are more common in the spring while bearding is more frequent in the hot summer months.
- Activity level: Swarming bees tend to be noisy and actively flying, while bearded bees appear relatively still and calm.
- Location: Bearding typically occurs just outside the hive on the landing board, while swarming bees are often found on the move or clustered away from the hive.
Bearding is a completely normal behavior! It’s a good sign to see a beard of bees hanging outside of the hive. When you see them, just think about them sitting outside on their porch enjoying the cooler air while trying to avoid adding to the body heat inside of the hive.
I love seeing the different crazy shapes and clumps that they form on the front of the hives. My favorite is when they are literally hanging down off of the hive. Remember, when you see a lot of bees outside of the hive, don’t jump to the belief that they are swarming! That will involve a lot more flying. These bees know what they’re doing.
I hope you enjoy some of this bearding phenomenon! Good luck, and enjoy your apiary!