by Matt on July 31, 2013
It was a hot and humid evening, the sun was just beginning to set and the temperature was still about 85 degrees. I was watering the goats and putting the chickens in for the night when I decided to walk back and check on the bees.
Our bees are located at the far end of the back yard, away from all the places that we (and the animals) usually spend our time. The hive box is on a stand of bricks about two feet from the back fence. The entrance faces a six foot. This location forces the bees to immediately elevate and spend most of their time above the heads of any people who may be nearby.
As I approached the hive I could hear them buzzing, which is not unusual for a hot day. However, when I got around the box, I was startled by what I saw. The front of the hive was covered with bees. These pictures are from a bit later and do not truly do justice to the layer of bees on the front of the box.
I was instantly worried that the bees were trying to swarm. Swarming occurs when the bees decide to leave their current hive and find a new hive. The bees will congregate for a few days while scout bees locate a new hive space; then the bees will leave and populate the new hive. In some cases when bees swarm the entire hive leaves, in other cases the current queen only takes a portion of the hive and leaves the old hive to workers who must then generate a new queen. Generally swarming is damaging for a hive, particular as my hive is not particularly populous right now.
However, after studying the bees for several minutes, I realized the bees were not getting ready to swarm. Rather, the bees were engaged in a behavior called “Bearding”.
Bees use their wings to circulate air into and around their hive, thereby regulating the hive temperature. In the summer the bees typically circulate air in the hive in such a way that cool air is drawn into the hive and hot air is blown out. On cool fall or spring days, the bees will circulate the air to keep warm air in the hive and cool air outside. In the winter the bees will not use their wings to circulate air, but will rather bunch together and vibrate, thereby generating heat.
“Bearding” is an outgrowth of this behavior. Bearding occurs when bees need to draw so much air into their hive that a large portion of bees need to be stationed outside the hive in order to push cool air inside the hive. The bees who are outside tend to be older bees as they are exposed to predators and it is less harmful to the hive for the older bees to be eaten.
Of all the animals I have worked with, I think I enjoy the bees the most. They are relatively self-sufficient and there is always something new to learn.