Bearding Bees - Nope, It's Not a Swarm
As temperatures begin to rise in the Seattle area, swarming begins to happen, as well as bearding. Many times newer beekeepers mistake bearding for swarming and make improper decisions. Lets talk a little about that.
WHAT IS BEARDING??
June and July (usually) bring warmer temps in the Pacific Northwest. When this happens, the temperatures in the hive also rises. Typically the internal temperatures of the hive are between 70-95 degrees, all year. The bees do a great job of maintaining that temperature by "shivering" in the colder months to generate heat, and "fanning" in the warmer months to reduce heat.
When temperatures become too hot, the bees will exit the hive to one(1) , reduce overall body heat from inside the hive, and two(2) to collectively fan their wings to force air into the hive. When they do this, they will gather all around the hive entrance and up the hive body in a mass of bees.
This can be disturbing looking as it resembles swarming behavior. Many beekeepers will misidentify this and start to take swarming preventative measures such as splitting the colony. This is not necessary.
IS THIS A SWARM OR BEARDING?
In its essence, swarming and bearding seem very similar. In reality, they are much different. Here are some steps to determine if they are a swarm or a beard.
- Is it evening or afternoon?
- Evening: Most likely a beard
- Afternoon: Could be a swarm
- Are the bees flying into the air and circling, or sticking to the hive entrance?
- Flying: Could be swarming
- Entrance: Bearding
- Are they clumping in a tree, or at the hive entrance and immediate area?
- Clumping in Tree: Swarming
- Clumping at Entrance: Most likely bearding
WHEN WILL I SEE BEARDING?
Typically bearding tends to happen later in the day, as the sun is beginning to set and the radiant heat is greatest, and foraging bees have all returned to the hive increasing population. Bees will begin to emerge from the hive and crawl up the sides, fanning their wings and reducing inside temps .
Bearding will last most of the night, but by morning you will see that most bees have returned inside with only a few remaining outside.
WHAT SHOULD I DO IF MY HIVE BEARDS?
There are a few things you can do to help the bees reduce the inside temperatures, but really nature has developed the best solution, and that's the bees natural behavior is enough. But you can certainly help by employing some of the following
Screened Inner Cover
Removing your solid inner cover and replacing it with a screened inner cover lets heat escape the top of hive. Some models will also give you an upper entrance/exit for the bees to use as well which can help the bees.
Slatted Bottom Board
Opposite of the inner cover is the slatted bottom board. This allows from more air to get into the hive, thus reducing retained heat.
Prop The Telescoping Cover
Simply lifting the telescoping cover up a bit helps to get air flow going. Simply take a small rock or scrap wood and place it on top of the inner cover, replace the telescoping cover which will result in one side of the top being higher than the other, allowing air to flow into the hive.
Please note, this should not be kept this way for extended periods of time as it makes defending the hive harder for the guards. When temps drop down, remove the rock/wood from inside and return the cover to it's normal position.
It's natural to be alarmed when bearding happens. Part of your job as a beekeeper is to watch for odd or abnormal behavior and address. The key is to recognize the differences between swarming behavior and swarming and then act accordingly.
Bearding is natural, and really not anything to worry about, especially in the Pacific Northwest where temperatures do not typically stay warm overnight and for weeks on end. I take bearding as a sign of a healthy, growing population of bees and worry about the hives that don't beard more.
If your hive beards, let them just handle it as they know how. It's kind of fun to watch, from a distance (remember bees are more aggressive at night). Oh, and certainly don't put a fan on them, it won't help!