Like many hobbies, beekeepers have unique terminology when talking about honey bee activities.
The term “bee cleansing flights” is one of those expressions. It might seem pretty bemusing to newbies.
So what are these cleansing flights, when do they occur, and how do you know when you are observing them?
Let’s find out…
Honey Bee Cleansing Flights
Bee cleansing flights are a ritual or behavior that honey bees perform and are a means of keeping the hive clean and preventing the buildup of unwanted material and bee feces. They also prevent bacteria from developing in the beehive. Cleansing flights are usually only noticeable after bad weather.
Bees are fastidious insects that take great pains to keep their hives clean and neat. This characteristic in bee behavior helps to limit the spread of disease in the colony and prevent infestations by certain pests.
What Is A Bee Cleansing Flight?
A bee cleansing flight is a polite description for a bee taking a flight outside the hive to defecate!
In most cases, the bees poop when they are out of the hive foraging, but what about the bees whose duties keep them at home in the hive?
These bees undergo regular cleansing flights where they fly out of the hive to defecate and relieve themselves. On these cleansing flights, the bees may defecate in flight or defecate when they land on a plant or nearby structure.
What Is The Purpose Of These Flights?
Bees do not poop inside the hive. Can you imagine the mess that would accumulate inside the hive if 10 000 bees defecated inside the beehive?
It would soon fill up with excrement and become a breeding ground for mold and bacteria that could negatively affect the colony’s health.
When the bees need to defecate, they take flight and move some distance from the hive to relieve themselves. This activity also allows housebound bees to “stretch their wings,” so to speak, and exercise their flight muscles.
When Do Bees Take Cleansing Flights?
During the spring, summer, and fall seasons, the bees will take cleansing flights whenever they need to perform this function.
The cleansing flights are consequently not noticeable by the beekeeper during these times unless there is a period of stormy or cold weather that keeps the bees inside the hive.
Cleansing flights are most noticeable after long periods where the bees have been confined to the inside of the hive.
This confinement can be during periods of rain, cold, or the long winter season. Bees can hold waste for much longer than humans. Bees can accumulate their feces in a section of their abdomen, which allows them to store waste for several weeks, but at some point, they must make a cleansing flight.
When there is a break in the weather, the bees will often exit the hive to perform cleansing flights. At these times, cleansing flights can be observed since the bees often leave the beehive to complete this task.
At What Temperature Do Bees Leave For Cleansing?
Bees usually take advantage of warmer weather in the winter to make cleansing flights and expel their excrement.
Bees struggle to fly in cold temperatures, and the minimum temperature at which they will risk a cleansing flight is 54°F or 12°C.
The cleansing flights are short, and the bees do not venture too far from the hive. However, if they stay out of the warmth of the colony for too long, they will become unable to fly.
Will Bees Take Cleansing Flights In The Rain?
Bees do not like to fly in the rain because large raindrops can kill the bees or damage their wings. Bees also use the sun to help them navigate; they can become lost if the sun is not visible.
Bees will generally only fly in light rain. They may take a cleansing flight in these drizzly conditions but will not venture outside in heavy rain.
The bees would rather hold their excrement and wait for more suitable flying conditions before venturing on a cleansing flight. Their ability to hold it for a few weeks assists them in waiting out the rain and flying when conditions are less dangerous.
Do All The Bees Leave?
When the bees have been cooped up in the hive by cold or rainy weather, they will leave in large numbers when the conditions improve to conduct their cleansing flights.
However, all the bees will not leave the hive at once to perform their cleansing flights, as this would leave the beehive and the queen unprotected. Also, the temperature inside the hive would drop.
The bees will coordinate their bathroom break so that some bees remain in the hive while others go outside to perform their ablutions. The bees in the first group may fly around a little to exercise their muscles, absorb some sunshine and defecate.
Once the first batch of bees has completed their business, they will return to take over in-hive duties. This allows the next group of bees to undertake their cleansing flight.
How To Help Bees Take Cleansing Flights – And Survive!
Cold winter temperatures can cause dysentery in bees if they cannot go to the bathroom for longer periods than they can hold it.
There are steps you can take to help your bees after a prolonged enclosure in the hive.
You can assist your bees in taking cleansing flights more frequently by providing an opening at the top of the beehive for them to exit the hive and relieve themselves!
Exits at the upper side of the hive prevent bees from traveling down to colder areas outside the cluster. During cold weather, she may not make it to the entrance or be too cold to fly by the time she gets there.
An exit at the top of the hive will be warmed by the rising warm air from the cluster of bees inside, and the bee will stay warm while she exits the hive. She will also warm up faster as she re-enters the upper entrance and enters the warmer air rising from the bee cluster.
Also, many beekeepers in cold climates do not like to leave their bees with dark honey for the winter. The thinking is that dark honey has more solid particles making it more difficult for the bees to digest. This may cause dysentery and the need for more frequent cleansing flights in the winter cold.
Removing dark honey and feeding the bees with sugar water is an alternative to help your bees hold waste for longer periods. In turn, this reduces the need for cleaning flights in cold or rainy weather.
You may not notice these flights in summer, but they are more noticeable in winter since the bees often leave the hive and fly around nearby.
Tip: make sure you’re not standing around your beehives at this time!
Or wear a raincoat to prevent the bees from depositing their business all over you!