Bee Bearding: Bees Hanging Outside The Hive At Night

Bearding is when many bees cluster outside the hive in a shape that looks like a beard. Bees beard because the internal temperature of the hive is too hot and humid, which can cause the brood to die and make it impossible for bees to make honey.

Bearding is done to reduce the number of bees inside the hive. This allows for enough ventilation to pass through the hive, cooling the temperature and lowering humidity levels.

When bees are bearding, they typically form large clusters across the landing board or hang from the bottom of the hive.

Why Does Bee Bearding Occur?

Imagine you come home from work on a sweltering summer’s day and go inside to find out your house is still boiling hot. You’ve got no air-conditioning to turn on, so what do you do? Simple – you open the doors and windows, then go outside onto the front porch and enjoy the nighttime breeze while you wait for the house to cool down. It’s more or less the same with bees. 

Group of bees clustering on the outside of a Langstroth hive

Bearding is a natural behavior and happens when the temperature inside their hive is too hot and humid. Many people often confuse bearding with swarming, but don’t worry – they are different. Your bees most likely aren’t going to swarm if they are hanging outside the hive at night. 

Swarming is when the queen and a large number of workers leave the hive to create a new one. It’s a natural method of reproduction that happens because the colony becomes too large for its existing hive.

Bearding, on the other hand, is when a large number of bees hang outside the hive. They have no intention of leaving. They’re merely waiting for the hive to cool down and the humidity levels to drop. Once this happens, they’ll go back inside.

Is Bee Bearding Normal?

Bearding is one of those bee behaviors that seem strange to us and make us panic thinking something is wrong with them or the hive.

However, bees hanging outside the hive is completely normal. In fact, it’s a sign that the colony is healthy. Strong colonies have a large population, meaning there are more bees and less room inside the hive for airflow.

Fortunately, bees are experts at regulating the temperature inside their hive. Much like the way bees cluster together in Winter when it’s cold, they also have strategies for staying cool in summer.

These include fanning their wings to ventilate the hive and regulate the flow of air, spreading water droplets on the rims of honeycomb cells that contain brood (almost like a form of evaporative cooling), and reducing the number of bees that cluster together to reduce density in certain parts of the hive.

However, when the weather becomes so hot that these measures cannot sufficiently control the temperature inside, bees will hang outside the hive instead. This reduces the number of bees in the hive, lowering the temperature and improving ventilation.

The Reasons Bees Beard When It’s Too Hot And Humid

The temperature inside the hive is very important for bees. An internal hive temperature that is too hot and humid can be dangerous. There are two reasons for this: 

  • The brood could die

The brood requires temperatures inside the hive to be between 34°-36°C (93°-97°F). If the hive becomes hotter than 36°C (97°F), the brood will begin to die.

  • The bees won’t be able to make honey

A hive that is too hot can threaten the colony’s existence because its survival depends on the brood maturing into fully grown worker drones and worker bees.

Ventilation is essential when bees turn nectar into honey, which they do by fanning their wings until the moisture content is between 14-18%. Once the moisture content reaches this level, the honey is considered ripe and stored inside cells in the hive’s honeycomb.

The humidity inside the hive is typically between 50-80%, with 75% being the preferred number when bees are given a choice. If the humidity reaches levels much higher than 80%, bees will not be able to turn nectar into honey, no matter how hard they beat their wings. Given honey is an essential food source for bees, a hive that is too hot can cause many bees to die.

How Long Will Bees Beard For?

Bees will continue to hang outside the hive until the temperature has cooled enough for them to go back inside. How long this takes can depend on the weather. It could be a few hours, it could be a few days, or it could even take longer.

If you live in a hot climate where the temperatures exceed 40°C (104°F), or if it’s summer and you’re experiencing a heatwave with many warm days in a row, it might take a substantial amount of time for the bees to stop bearding outside the hive.

Group of bees bearding on the hive entrance

Every hive is different, too, so there is no exact answer to the amount of time it will take for them to stop. It can depend on the size of the colony, its overall health, how old the hive is, as well as other factors that are too difficult to measure. 

But, in short, bees will go back inside when the temperature has cooled down, and they’re ready.

What To Do If Your Bees Are Bearding

Bearding is a natural behavior, so it’s important not to panic if you see bees forming clusters around the front of the hive. 

You should never try to stop them from bearding by force. Instead, just leave them alone to go about their business. They know more about temperature control inside a hive than you ever could. 

Don’t try to fan them towards the hive, don’t use smoke, and don’t force them to go back inside – they will do so when the temperature has cooled down.

You should, however, look for signs to make sure that the colony is indeed bearding and isn’t preparing to swarm. Here’s a quick checklist with the common differences to give you peace of mind:

Swarming typically occurs in mid-late spring or early summerBearding typically occurs during summer when the weather is hot
Swarming will most likely occur during the middle of the day, between the hours of 10 am-2 pmBearding will most likely occur in the late afternoon or evening, as bees return to the hive after a day of collecting pollen and nectar
When bees are about to swarm, they will be very loud and fly around a lotBearding bees are quiet and tend to stay grounded in large clusters on the outside of the hive
If a colony is preparing to swarm, there will be queen cells inside the hive as bees need to raise another queen for the new hiveWhen bees are bearding, you may notice some of them fanning their wings towards the hive entrance as they try to cool it down.
How to tell if your bees are bearding or swarming

How Can You Stop Bees From Bearding?

There are a few things you can do to help your bees keep their hive at a comfortable temperature when the weather is warm. This will reduce the likelihood and frequency that bearding occurs.

If you have birdbaths or containers for bees to drink from, make sure they’re not empty. Bees not only drink water, but they also carry it back to the hive to help reduce the temperature inside. If there is no water close, it could make it difficult for your bees to cool their hive – so now is an excellent time to top up all their sources of water. 

  • Provide shade for the bees in the afternoon

Bees love the morning sun, but being exposed to it all day can cause the hive to overheat. You can move your bees to a shadier location during the summer, especially if there is a suitable spot nearby. This can provide shelter from the direct sun and make it easier to keep the hive cool. Alternatively, you could try using a shade cloth such as this one, or large umbrella. Just make sure it’s up high enough not to impact the bees’ flight path to and from the hive.

  • Use a screened bottom board to improve ventilation

I have heard of beekeepers making small holes in their beehives to improve ventilation. Still, it’s not something I would do, as it could cause the hive to become too cold in Winter. A better solution would be to replace the solid bottom board with a screened bottom board (such as this one for an 8-frame Langstroth hive, or this one for a 10-frame hive). A screened bottom board helps improve ventilation. You can use it over summer, then swap it back for a solid one in Winter to ensure the hive stays warm during colder weather.

  • See if your bees need more space to build honeycomb

Poor ventilation is often due to congestion inside the hive. A healthy colony will have tens of thousands of bees and not every hive will have enough room to fit them. Take a look inside your hive and make sure your bees have enough space to make more comb. If everything is full, you can add another honey super (or bar if you’re using a top bar hive) for your bees to build on.

Bees Bearding In The Rain Or Cold Weather

We know bees beard because the internal temperature of their hive is too hot. But what about bees bearding in cold weather – even when it’s raining outside?

If your bees are bearding even when it’s cold or raining, it’s still most likely a way to regulate the temperature and humidity inside their hive.

You have to remember that there are numerous ways in which bees regulate their hive temperature. It’s essential during winter to keep the hive warm – but sometimes it can be too warm, despite the weather outside. 

Think of your own home during cold weather. If you run the heater all day, there will be a significant difference in the ambient temperature in your house when compared with your backyard. Bees might not have heaters, but they are still highly effective at increasing and reducing the internal temperature of their hive.

So, what should you do if your bees are bearding in the rain or during cold weather? When in doubt, trust your bees. They’re experts at regulating the internal temperature of their hive. If they are bearding in the rain or cold weather, it is because there is a problem they are trying to solve. 

If they don’t go back inside the hive within a day or two, you can always conduct checks to make sure they have enough internal space, ventilation, water and a cover (especially if it’s raining).

Do People Actually Wear Bees As A Beard… And Is That The Same Thing?

There is a big difference between what most beekeepers refer to as bearding – bees clustering outside their hive in the shape of a beard – and the circus trick where people hang thousands of bees on their chin (which gives them the appearance of having a beard made from bees). 

A bee beard is something people do to demonstrate the rapport they have with their bees and show that bees are not as dangerous as many people think. It is usually performed as a sideshow-style demonstration at agricultural shows or as part of a circus act.

Bee beards on humans are typically formed by tricking bees into thinking they are part of a swarm. Bees are fed before to prevent the chance of stinging, then the queen is removed and attached to the person’s head. The queen then emits pheromones that attract the worker bees and form a cluster.

Vaseline is often spread on the person’s eyes and lips to prevent the bees from crawling there. This encourages them to cluster at the person’s chin and form a beard-like shape. 

This is very different from natural bearding that occurs outside a hive. 

Wearing a bee beard is not something I have ever tried – and I don’t intend to do it anytime in the future for reasons that are hopefully obvious. I would certainly not recommend you try it at home!

Summing Up

When bees form a cluster outside the hive, it’s called bearding. This happens because the hive is too hot and humid, which can threaten the survival of the colony.

Bearding is completely normal behavior and is done by bees to reduce the temperature inside the hive. You’ll most likely notice it occurring at night when the weather is very hot. 

Don’t try to force your bees back inside if you notice them hanging outside the hive. They will go back inside when the temperature has cooled down. 

If you want to help, make sure there is enough water nearby, put up a shade cloth to protect the hive from the direct sun in the afternoon, or swap the solid bottom board for a screened one to improve ventilation.

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