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The Impact of Weather on Honey Bees

Recently, some in our area experienced nearly two feet of rain within a week’s time. Rivers and lakes flooded, yards (yes, beeyards) flooded, and the upcoming forecast is for temperatures in the mid 90s. For states along the Gulf Coast, that’s a recipe for 100% humidity—uncomfortable for bees and "beeks" alike! For some great tips on how to handle hives that have been flooded, check out our May Monthly Buzz webinar.

When we think about weather, we tend to think wet, dry, hot, cold, or windy. That pretty much covers the entire nation at one point or another. If you live in Texas, that can all happen in one week! You laugh—but it’s true! What’s a bee to do? Thankfully, they are very adaptable.

Bad weather can really be a problem for bees, but even more so during nectar flow. This is typically the time of year when hail, wind, and torrential rains are most common. Needless to say, bees cannot fly during these conditions. Even wind can prevent them from flying, affecting not only foragers but also queens that need to mate. Most colonies are at or nearly at peak population in June to maximize the amount of honey they can make and store for overwintering. If the weather is preventing them from flying, not only are they not gathering resources, but they are also consuming what they already have stored.

This can be very problematic. As the bad weather moves out, we express a sigh of relief, but the problem isn’t over. With heavy rain, and particularly lingering storms that go on for days, the nectar is washed away. Therefore, when it does dry out, there aren’t any resources left to forage. Depending on when this happens during the flow, they may or may not be given another opportunity to gather food. Speaking to myself here—it’s time to go check how much honey they have stored. Most of the time, this setback is short lived and they are able to regroup quickly, the nectar sources replenish, and everything gets back to normal. However, it’s common in years with poorly timed bad weather for the honey crop to suffer dramatically, causing beekeepers to feed much more than we would like to. Thankfully, this isn’t every year.

Listen as Harrison gives us some very helpful advice on keeping our hives cool.

Speaking of moisture, in my area and other high-humidity areas, bees tend to hang out on the front of their boxes more than bees in drier climates. See "Are My Bees About to Swarm?" They do this not only to reduce body heat but also to flap their wings to draw air up into the hive to dry and cool it.

In especially wet conditions, mold can become a huge problem for some hives. I’ve been told that a strong colony can handle it and not to worry. Frankly, I have found the opposite to be true. Living conditions will adversely affect even a healthy hive. The moment you see that a colony is unable to keep moisture down, it’s time to give the hive some ventilation.

Creating a cross-flow of air can almost instantly drop the humidity level inside of a hive. This can be achieved by placing a Popsicle stick or toothpick under each corner of the top cover. Another method utilized by some is simply lifting the front of the outer cover and letting it rest on the front lip of the inner cover. A word of caution: Lifting the lid can create an opening for robbing if conditions are ripe for it (i.e., nectar flow, dearth, etc.).

What about dry climates? The lack of water can be extremely bad as well. Not only do pollen- and nectar-producing plants need water to exist, so do bees! Water is used to cool the hive as mentioned above and also to thin honey to feed in times just like we’ve been talking about (rainy seasons)!

For beekeepers in these arid environments, planting nectar-producing plants that don’t require much water is very helpful. Some examples are asters, bee balm, cosmos, larkspur, firespike, and foxglove, just to name a few. Also provide a never-ending water source for your bees. This can be done easily with a bird bath or, even better, a dripping water hose that is strategically placed where the water feeds nonstop into a long trough.

In terms of temperatures, most beekeepers tend to be more concerned about their bees in the cold than in the heat. You know who you are. If you could, you would bring them inside by the fireplace if we told you it was OK! I joke, but we actually have it backward. Heat is harder on bees than cold.

In the winter, bees simply cluster, stay inside their hives, work very little, and consume very few resources. Just the opposite is true in summer. The population is at its greatest, everyone is working, and they are eating more food than ever! Therefore, we must think about where we put our bees to best keep them cool when summer heat reaches its peak. Morning sun and afternoon shade are ideal.

I can tell you that hasn’t been an option for this beekeeper very many times. What we are more likely to have is one or the other. Given only one choice, I would (in my area) choose more sun than shade primarily to mitigate small hive beetles. But in other areas where that isn’t an issue, I would opt to move my bees more to the shady side during the heat and then, if possible, move them back into the sun during the fall and winter.

If an open pasture is all you have, then don’t worry—the bees will adapt. It’s not totally unheard of to put a cover over bees if you are so inclined. At one point I’m quite certain I heard that Blake Shook bought a bunch of beach umbrellas and put them up over some hives that were exposed to extremely hot temperatures for a period of time. If you think about it, temperatures over 100 degrees in the hot sun can equate to “feels like” temperatures of well over 115–120 degrees. If I had only a few hives, I could see myself building a tall, simple framework covered in sheet metal to house my bees long term. Hey, if you have the time and resources, go for it!

Ventilation is also a huge component of relieving heat stress from our bees. Open screened bottom boards, no entrance reducer, and a vented top like we’ve already discussed all help, and you can go even one step further and use a screen inner cover.

Here's an example of how hot the inside of a hive can get in the heat of summer.

Interesting study by Jordan Glass: "When it’s hotter outside, honey bees can adjust how they fly, using larger, more powerful wingbeats that require them to beat their wings less frequently to get to where they need to go—like the human equivalent of running with longer strides. Flying that way helps them keep their body heat at a lower temperature, allowing them to carry lots of nectar even when it’s hot outside."

With all that said, bees will adapt … wait, I said that already. They truly will. The ultimate result of doing nothing tends to be stressed bees that produce fewer bees and less honey. Given the opportunity, I’d rather give them all the help I can to prevent that. How about you?

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