Honey Bees Beard to Beat the Heat


Bees bearding at the entrance to their hive on a hot summer day. Teresa Crowder/Howstuffworks

Did you know that one bee has to fly approximately 90,000 miles (144,841 kilometers), or about three times around the Earth, and gather nectar from some 2 million flowers to make a mere 1 pound (0.45 kilograms) of honey? That's a lot of work for just one little Apis mellifera. So it's a good thing honey bees are well-organized, task-oriented insects who stick together like family in colonies of several thousand workers per hive.

And did you know that the honey bee is the only insect that produces food eaten by humans (unless, of course, cockroach milk takes off and becomes a thing)? And that honey is nature's perfect food?

A groundbreaking 2018 study led by biologists at the University of California San Diego, consolidates scientific data from around the globe to show that the honey bee is the most successful pollinator in the world, the most important single species of pollinator in natural ecosystems and the single-most frequent pollinator of naturally occurring flowers and non-crop plants on Earth. That's a pretty big, vital deal for the planet and no small feat for creatures with a brain the size of a sesame seed. Their amazing bee-to-bee communication skills allow them to pipe (buzz), waggle (dance) and beard (huh?) in order to protect themselves and their life's mission: making honey.

So what the heck is bearding and why do honey bees do it? It's all about keeping cool.

Honey bees are able to regulate the temperature of their hive throughout the year. In winter months, they raise the hive's temperature by huddling together and vibrating their wings to generate heat and keep warm.

In the summer months the average temperature of the hive should be between 90-95°F (32-35°C). If it gets too hot, the bees fan their wings to lower the temperature and circulate air throughout the hive. Sometimes they collect and place droplets of water inside the hive and then queue up at the hive's entrance and fan their wings, creating air currents that evaporate the water and push cool air inside. While the fanners are outside fanning, there are bees on the inside fanning like crazy as well.

In summer's severely hot weather when the temperatures rise to extremes and the hive's population is large and crowded due to an abundance of nectar flow, the bees head en masse out of the nest and cluster outside the hive to try to remain cool and keep the hive from overheating and killing the brood. Busy bee activity inside the hive generates a lot of heat. Leaving the hive and clinging to the outside is the bees' modus operandi for helping to regulate the hive's internal temperature by huddling together and beating their wings to create air flow. This activity is called bearding because the formation the bees make on the outside of the hive is shaped like a man's beard. It is natural, normal behavior and should not be confused with swarming, which occurs when the bees all get together and decide to leave the hive for greener pastures.

So if you see a bunch of bees in beard formation hanging outside their hive – have no fear. Think of them as amazing apian generators: a society of whirring little porch fans buzzing up a breeze to try and beat the heat inside.



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