The Truth About Washboarding

We’re yet to find out the real reason why bees do the behaviour called “washboarding”. This activity is when a group of bees perform a certain behaviour on the entrance of the hive. When you observe them well, they seem to be licking something from the surface, with all hind legs in the same position while the front legs scrubbing the surface. From this, it’s probably safe to assume that they are “cleaning”, or is it? 

What do we know about washboarding?

Although we don’t know the reason as to why the bees do this, we do have some facts from research. Here’s what we know: 

  1. The washboarders were all worker bees.
  2. The peak amount of washboarding occurred in workers between 15-25 days old.
  3. Washboarding increased from about 8 a.m. to about 2 p.m. and then remained constant to as late as 9 p.m.
  4. When given three different surfaces, the washboarding increased as the surface became more textured. Slate produced the most washboarding, followed by unpainted wood, and then glass. The surface-type data, however, did not produce statistically significant results.

What Research Tells Us

Recent research conducted by Taulman (2017), has provided a good reason as to why bees are washboarding. This research was conducted with feral honey bees. Interestingly enough, feral honey bees do the same activity, but not much has been discussed about it! 

Taulman (2017) discussed his hypotheses on washboarding: 

“ important function of the washboarding activity may be to continuously apply an attractive colony scent to the surface around the entrance to the hive, serving to help orient the returning foragers and allow them to quickly find and enter the hive with their field collections..”

(Taulman 2017)

Taulman (2017) has mentioned that the bees may be rubbing tarsal pheromone on the surface of the hive, which is excreted from the bees’ legs. The tarsal pheromone is  a non-volatile, oily substance that must be rubbed against the substrate to be transmitted (Taulman 2017; Goodman 2003). This provides reason to the repetitive movement of the bees front legs when washboarding.

Upon observation…

Taulman (2017) also said that the effect of the pheromone increases from the number of bees’ doing it. However, he does not dismiss the observation that bees’ may be washboarding to clean the entrance of the hive. As he observes a feral hive do so that lives in a tree, the cleaning function can be seen through the difference on the surface of the bark of the tree, posing a smoother surface compared to a nearby dead tree that contains debris and moss around the surface. 

“Observations of the concentration of the washboarding workers around the single hive entrance of a natural cavity, with returning foragers passing through the center of the mass of washboarding bees as they dart into the hive, are also more suggestive that the workers may be producing attractive orienting pheromones to guide foragers into the entrance, compared with the appearance of a group of washboarding bees spread out on the wall of a box hive, far from the entrance slit at the bottom.”

(Taulman 2017)

His research paper will be linked down below!

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