Lots of things about your bees and their mysterious world can be deduced just by paying attention to what’s happening at the front entrance. Here are four distinctive things to keep an eye out for:

  1. Nasonving Bees
    Nasonov gland fanning. When you see bees apparently standing still around any entrance, look closely. Close inspection will reveal they have their feet planted firmly and have their wings beating so fast the action is nearly invisible. Now look at their posture – is their abdomen sticking up, with just the very tip slightly bent downwards? If so, look for a small lighter-colored spot on the top surface, just at that bend. This is their Nasonov gland and only worker bees have them, not queens or drones. The Nasonov gland produces an airborne pheromone that is used in signaling to other bees from the same hive. Bees Nasonov, as this kind of fanning is called, like this when they want to put out a signal to other bees in order to guide them home. So, you will often see this after an inspection when non-oriented bees may need an odor beacon to find their way back home. If you’ve added a fresh box or moved an entrance point to a new location, the bees will Nasonov at the new site. Just look for bees with their abdomen pointed up and exposing that little light-colored gland near the tip. It’s the odor equivalent of the strong beam of light from a lighthouse guiding a ship safely back to port.
  2. Fanning BeeLine of bees fanning
    Ventilation fanning. This looks a lot like Nasonoving, except that instead of having their abdomens tipped jauntily upwards, the bees’ abdomens are usually arched downward. They look like they're are hard at work, and they are. When you see this, you know the bees are using their wings to alter the conditions inside the hive, to change the temperature or change the humidity, or both. Bees are exquisitely skilled at this task and carry on ventilation operations 24/7 when needed, both at the entrance and deep within the hive. Often on sultry nights when there’s a nectar flow going on, you can hear the roar of fanning operations inside from several feet away. They are moving air over newly-filled cells dripping with runny nectar in order to dry it down and reduce its volume (and thus make room for the next day’s haul) and to begin its transformation into denser honey. Bees also fan in conjunction with water brought into the hive in order to keep temperatures in the brood area at the optimal level. They may operate the original versions of Swamp Coolers. Fanning consumes an almost unimaginable amount of coordinated effort, as they move air in through the entrance, circulate it throughout the hive cavity around the combs and then force it back out. Sometimes there are whole lines of fanning bees working in conjunction to amplify the effect. If it’s hot and your entrance is somewhat restricted, you might see if you can reduce the work load by adding some more ventilation. But that may also have the paradoxical risk of upsetting their existing air pathways. Of course, in an emergency, say an accidentally closed entrance on a hot day, go ahead and rip it wide open. But otherwise if you want to help, but not hinder, try making modest changes and listen for any alteration in the intensity of effort indicated by a change in the volume or pitch of the fanning noise. Follow that lead.
  3. Bee bearding
    Bearding. In warm weather, thousands of bees take themselves outside and hang out on the surface of the hive. They can be in a thin layer covering a large area, or in draped festoons of impressive size, hanging down from any surface. This is called bearding and it is perfectly normal both in the daytime, and at night. It is thought that these bees are resting bees and by taking themselves out of the hives they have assisted bees working inside to more easily manage indoor conditions and keep the interior at the right temperature and humidity. Each little bee body not only blocks some internal air flow, it adds its own contribution to the heat load inside. Moving outside in big groups works well and doesn’t indicate an emergency in most cases. Bee beards, especially at night when all the bees are at home, can reach staggering sizes. It’s interesting to see just how many bees may live within a colony. If visiting your yard at night using a flashlight, be prepared that the bees may suddenly, and sometimes aggressively, be drawn to the light, so use it sparingly. The best time to see night-time beards is just at dusk when you can still see without supplemental light. Persistent bearding may indicate the need for additional boxes, or additional ventilation by opening the entrance more, or slightly raising the cover.
  4. Washboarding. All of the above observations have easy-to-understand explanations about why they occur. Easy to understand by humans, of course. Washboarding is different – no one knows why bees do this, although many hypotheses have been suggested. Washboarding is a coordinated movement pattern performed by dozens to hundreds of bees at the same time. It looks like the bees are doing a kind of shared dance step. They repeatedly move forward and backwards in lines and keep it up for many minutes before changing things up a bit and starting a new pattern. It’s usually seen on the front face of the hive near the entrance or on the front porch. When you first see it, it’s perplexing because its organized quality must surely mean it has some purpose, even if looks like the bees have gone collectively mad. It’s fascinating to watch, and while not rare, it doesn’t happen every day. Here is a YouTube video made by Dr. James Tew who was recently our featured speaker at the 2019 Field Day. I asked him if he had come to any further conclusions about washboarding, and he chuckled, because it was still baffling to him, and as it is to all beekeepers. Watch the video, and be awestruck, even if you’ve seen it before. When it occurs in one of your hives, you’ll be standing there gawking at it with wonder and puzzlement, just like the rest of us. Maybe that’s the lesson, to remind us that no matter how much we learn about the bees in our care, that they still retain some inscrutable secrets. Dr. Tew has kindly give us permission to post the video here.