When you hear the word bearding, what comes to mind? If it's a freakishly calm beekeeper covered head-to-toe in bees and enjoying the attention-getting experience, you're probably not alone... but you're not right. While bees certainly cling during bearding, no human is required, just the front of a hive.
Bearding is a fascinating process, and the reason honey bees do it says a lot about how intelligent these amazing little creatures are.
Bearding only happens during the hottest, most humid months of the year. In much of the Northern Hemisphere, this starts as early as mid-June and continues until the end of August. Honey bees tend to beard in the evenings, but in particularly hot weather, they might “hang around” outside the hive all night. The reason they do this is simple — crowded hives are hot. Since keeping the temperature under control is vital for the health of the brood, temperature control is one of the things that worker bees, well, work on. When the hive is too cold, the workers huddle together inside and vibrate the same muscles they use to fly, literally giving off heat. When the hive heats up, however, the workers' playbook is much more complex.
One of the first things honey bees do to keep things cool is fan their wings inside the hive. This causes the air to circulate, which lowers the hive's temperature. If the heat continues to be problematic, the bees gather water and bring it back to the hive, drop by drop. They place these droplets inside, then line up near the entrance and fan their wings to get the air flowing. The air passing over the water causes it to evaporate, which helps cool the hive. The fact that honey bees are masters of ventilation speaks volumes about their ingenuity, but their knowledge doesn't end here.
When the weather is so hot even water-aided ventilation can't make the hive's temperature bearable for the brood, the bees beard. When nectar flow slows, worker bees who would normally be out in the field collecting nectar end up with a lot of free time and know spending it inside only makes the hive hotter, so they while away long evenings (and some nights) clinging to the outside of the hive. This gives the nursery workers as well as the brood itself more breathing room. Most importantly, it lowers the colony's overall heat output. Basically, they're abdicating their space inside so other bees can have more wiggle room.
Bees also spend time outside the hive before swarming, but this looks and sounds very different from bearding. Swarming also happens when it's cooler—from March to mid-June—and not during the dog days of summer. Swarming tends to be a mid-day occurrence, unlike bearding, which is almost always late in the day.
A hive about to swarm also looks different than one that's bearding. When a hive beards, the bees stay close together, like a living “carpet” over the front of the hive. When a hive is about to swarm, however, the bees are scattered all over the outside of the hive. They also emit a deep, roaring sound. When their queen joins them, they fly off in a single, buzzing cloud.
Swarming lasts 15 minutes at most, from start to finish. Bearding, on the other hand, lasts for hours. You may go to bed at night with the bees hanging around outside the hive, only to find them back in their usual quarters in the morning, as the cooler dawn temperatures allow the workers to return to the hive's confines.
While bearding is fascinating, the truth is, hot weather is very hard on honey bees. There are a number of things you can do when setting up your hive to make things a little easier for them. One of the simplest is making sure they have fresh, clean water nearby. Something as simple as a setting up a birdbath in your yard and making sure the bees have something to stand on (like a floating stick) while drinking can work wonders. This is also the water they'll take back to the hive to keep it cool. During the hottest months, bees can use as much a liter of water for this every single day, so you want to make sure you keep the birdbath fairly full.
Another incredibly important thing for a beekeeper to do is make sure the beehive gets shade each day. Being in total shade isn't ideal (or necessary) but being in the shade during the hottest part of the day takes a lot of strain off worker bees struggling to regulate the hive's temperature. This can be as simple as situating your hive in a place that naturally and organically gets shade in the middle of the day, or, if need be, putting up boards to deliberately block the sun when it's at its most fierce.
For a closer look at making sure your hive is set up in the best possible place, this blog post covers the bases.
One other thing you can do to help regulate the hive's internal temperature is paint it white, which will reflect sunlight, not absorb it. The wood composite all Tapcomb® hives are made out was chosen because of its ability to help with thermal regulation. This special material is environmentally sound, good for bees, good for trees, and easy to take care of, too.