Why Do Bees Washboard?

Ask the Expert!

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Karine Hinton asks:

My bees began washboarding two days ago. I’m looking for more information on this behavior.                                         

Rusty Burlew replies:

Washboarding seems to be a universal behavior among Apis mellifera, but the purpose of it remains unclear. When bees washboard, they space themselves on the surface of their hive, a lot like those social distancing circles you see in the news where everyone is equidistant. Then they plant their four rear legs in place and use their two front legs to step forward and back in a rocking motion while they lick the surface. Sometimes a colony will washboard for a day or two, but at other times it may continue for weeks.

bees-washboarding
Photo courtesy of Butts Bees

Experiments have been performed in an effort to understand washboarding behavior in bees. Although researchers have come to no solid conclusions, some characteristics are consistent from hive to hive. For example, given various surfaces, honey bees are more apt to washboard on irregular or rough-textured surfaces. Washboarders are all workers — no drones — and they begin at about 13 days of age, but their activity peaks between 15-25 days of age. Older workers seem to lose interest. Washboarding is most likely to begin after a nectar flow ends. On any given day, the activity begins early, about 8 a.m. and increases until early afternoon, and then remains constant until early evening.

Some beekeepers assume that the bees polish rough places where pathogens could live, while others think they are just cleaning particles left over from the honey season. It’s all speculation, though, since we don’t know and we can’t ask.

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