The word festoon usually relates to flowers or fabric that is loosely linked together with ribbon and is extended between two points. So when we say that bees are festooning, we mean that they are linked together by hanging on to each other’s legs forming a long line or bee web, sometimes extending the full size of a frame. They are able to use their own bodies to bridge across areas by holding hands, of sorts, with other bees. The six legs of honey bees actually have pads and hooks. Each leg has a pair of hooks which they can use to hold onto another bee’s hooks. A festoon is often only one layer thick, and the design is open and airy.
Beekeepers have lots of explanations for this behavior. Some say the bees are “measuring” the distance between frames, some say the structure acts like a scaffolding from which the bees build comb, some say bees can only produce wax from the festooning position.
In a way, not knowing why they occur makes festoons all the more beautiful. Jewel Ciappio, one of the followers of MyBeeLine wrote:
„Bees are amazing engineers. I love it, because it is a reminder that no one among us can accomplish anything alone. It takes a community to build anything, so be sure to remember those who have helped you accomplish your goals, and lend a hand to others in need of assistance. Together we prosper.“
Scientists, however, are much less confident about the function of festooning. Jürgen Tautz the world-renowned German bee biologist at the University of Würzburg says, “The function of the living chain that is formed by bees where new combs are being built, or old combs repaired, is completely unknown.”
Researchers Muller and Hepburn studied the festoons of Cape honey bees in South Africa. They found that workers in a certain age group produced the same amount of wax as others in their age group whether they were in a festoon or not. Furthermore, they found that about half the new wax originated from bees in a festoon and half from bees elsewhere in the nest, except in winter. In winter nearly all new wax came from non-festooning bees.
If you’ve never seen bees festooning in real-life, find a beekeeper you can find along with this spring or summer and try to catch a glimpse of this crazy-cool phenomenon.