One of the things that worry beginner beekeepers most in the early months or even years is when bees gather at the entrance to their hives. Novices immediately think that there is something disastrously wrong and that they have somehow failed. This is not necessarily so. But here is a list of some of the most common unusual activities at the hive entrance.
Bearding is when bees gather for no apparent reason on the face of the hive around or near the entrance. Beginners often think they are preparing to swarm or abscond, but this is not the case.
There are a couple of reasons why they do this. First, they may be running out of room and there is simply no room for them in the hive. The second is to cool down on a warm day. The more bees there are in a hive the more difficult it is to cool the hive with all that body heat warming it up, so a number of them stay outside.
To state the obvious, bees need to procreate or they will not survive. To do this their queen needs to mate so she can lay eggs. But the world is a dangerous place for queen bees and when she goes on her mating flight she may be targeted by hungry birds or she may get lost and not find her way back to the hive. She may return to the wrong hive and be killed when trying to enter it. Queenless colonies sometimes try to lure returning queens to their hive, often successfully.
So to ensure the safety of their queen a sizeable group of workers escort the queen on her mating flight. They gather at the entrance before and after the flight and can sometimes be mistaken for simple bearding or swarming, though the numbers are not really big enough to be a swarm.
Festooning Outside Hive
Festooning is when bees hang in chains linked to each other sometimes in sheets and sometimes barely connected by two bees holding each other’s legs. Opinion is divided on exactly what they are doing, but it seems to be connected to comb-building. They may be checking for vertical (like a plumb line) or they may be measuring distances or none of the above. This is usually done inside the hive, but it has sometimes been seen outside the hive too.
Bees Clustering Outside Hive Entrance
This behaviour is similar to bearding, but rather than gathering in a flat layer they are gathered more in the shape of a ball. This sometimes happens when they are balling the queen, i.e. attacking and killing the queen. If they deem it necessary to replace the queen, they usually kill her inside the hive and dump her body out. Sometimes there is a chase and they catch up with her at the entrance when you see them carrying out the assassination. There may be up to a few hundred bees involved in this activity.
If there are large numbers of bees clustered in a ball, with more bees in the air buzzing around, it is possible that they are preparing a small swarm. This would usually be late in the season.
Orientation flights happen when young bees are getting ready to begin foraging. They fly in ever wider circles around the hive familiarising themselves with the terrain and the hive itself so that they will be able to find their way back with their load of pollen or nectar.
If you move the hive or make significant changes to the area around the hive, you will see all of the foragers, new and old, doing a new orientation flight to ensure that they will recognise their hive when they get back.
Fighting at the Entrance
It is not too unusual to see fighting at the entrance to the hive. This is usually the guard bees defending the hive against robbers (bees from other hives) or wasps that are after the hive’s honey supplies.
If it is late in the season or early winter it could also be the workers throwing the drones out of the hive. Though the drones do not put up much of a fight since they do not have a sting, they will be reluctant to leave. They are lovers, not fighters.
If there are large numbers of bees fighting with many more in the air and spread around the outside of the hive, it could be a takeover, i.e. a colony invading and moving into a weaker hive.
This is when bees stand around the entrance or anywhere in that area and rock back and forward as if washing clothes on a washboard. It can be in quite large numbers of just a few at a time. See the video below.
Why they do this is unknown at this time. But there are some ideas. One is that they are cleaning the hive, because they do it inside and outside and their tongues are in contact with the hive when they are doing it.
Another suggestion is that they have pollen lodged in uncomfortable places that they are trying to dislodge.