I know it’s captivating to watch your bees at work, so it’s very tempting to go and take a peek at your bees whenever you fancy. It’s very cold here at the moment and disturbing bees during the winter obviously isn’t acceptable. But that got me wondering what would be the best temperature to inspect a bee hive. I’ve been doing some research…
So what’s the best hive inspection temperature? Ideally you need to wait until temperatures reach 60°F (15°C) or more before working your beehives. The best time to inspect a hive is when the bees are out foraging. Bees cannot fly when the temperature drops to around 50°F (10°C) and honey bees are rarely out of the hive when the temperature is too hot such as above 100°F (38°C).
So a good rule of thumb for inspections is to aim for temperatures between 60 and 100°F (15-38°C). But of course temperature isn’t the only factor that influences bees mood and there are a few other considerations to keep in mind when picking the right moment to visit your hives.
What is the best time of day to open a beehive?
Ask any beekeeper when is the perfect time of day to inspect hives and you’ll probably get some pretty varied answers, but the one thing in common seems to be when bees are absent from the hive. Less bees inside the beehive means at least three things:
- You’re less likely to come up against a large number of defensive bees in case they happen to be bad-tempered.
- There is less chance that you squash bees while manipulating hive parts when there are less bees around.
- Having fewer bees on the frames makes comb inspections much easier.
Bees are less grumpy when they’re busy! I’ve heard that honey bees act nicer when the temperature reaches 70°F (21°C). Taking this into account, most beekeepers seem to opt for a time between mid-morning and mid-afternoon. This is obviously climate dependent, so if you live up north or in a more southerly region your window of opportunity may be different.
It would be useful to find the temperature which corresponds to the time of day when bees are happily out foraging for nectar and pollen.
The number one rule for inspecting hives whatever the conditions is to aim for minimum disturbance. Bear in mind that inspecting a hive should have a clear purpose and overly frequent inspections can be harmful to the brood nest.
Minimum temperature for hive inspection
Honey bees during the cold months of winter will remain in cluster and seldom leave the hive (they don’t hibernate and stay active and grouped together when outside temperatures prevent them from flying). Cold temperatures make it difficult if not impossible for bees to fly. Below 50°F (10°C) they probably won’t budge at all. During this period the beekeepers main concern is to help keep hives warm and avoid chilling the broad and bees. Opening the hive for long periods of time should be avoided. A drop in temperature inside the colony can be stressful and the bees will have to work hard to bring the cluster back up to the optimum temperature of 95°F (35°C). Honey bees tend to stabilize the core of the winter cluster at this temperature by vibrating their wings and bodies to generate heat.
When temperatures are below 50°F (10°C) you can perform quick inspections. It helps if you pick a day when there’s a little bit of sunshine. And if you’ve winterized your hives with black building paper (tar paper) this will help the hive absorb the warm rays of the sun. If you’re feeding your bees over winter these inspections will usually be limited to lifting the outer cover to check if the bees have eaten all the winter feed (usually bee fondant).
As temperatures warm up in the spring beekeepers are concerned to see how bee colonies have managed during the winter. Temperatures are still cool but I’ve heard of beekeepers doing inspections at temperatures of around 55°F (13°C). This is most likely to be a quick inspection to check for brood on the frames. In spring, brood rearing should be ramping up and the presence of brood indicates that the queen is healthy and laying.
Maximum temperature for hive inspections
In summertime when temperatures are extremely hot it becomes impractical to perform long inspections of beehives. At around 100°F (38°C) you might witness large groups of bees gathering on the outside of the hive (This is a phenomenon known as bee bearding). In these conditions honey bees are concerned with keeping the interior of the hive from overheating and killing the brood. And because in summer time the bee population is at its highest, large numbers of bees inside the hive will only make temperatures rise.
In very hot conditions it may be useful to move your inspection time to early mornings as soon as some sunshine reaches your hives and the bees start to get busy. During the night the hives will cool and this gives you the opportunity to get inspections done before temperatures hit 100°F. The cooler temperatures will also be much easier going on the beekeeper!
You can help your bees when it’s hot by improving ventilation in the hive and by making sure bees have a good supply of water. In very hot climatic conditions honey bees will need several quarts (litres) of water per day. Putting a water source nearby means they can get on with foraging for nectar.
The hottest time of the year is usually close to the summer nectar flow(otherwise known as the honey flow, this is the season when nectar sources are in bloom and conditions are very favorable for honey bees). Because bees are working hard during this time you will probably need to check to see if the comb is filling up and make a judgement about adding an another super on top of the hive (a honey super is the box containing frames of comb for collecting honey).
I’ve heard of beekeepers reporting that when temperatures reach the 100°F level then the nectar flow stops. This is typically the beginning of what is called a nectar dearth. At this time nectar becomes scarce because there’s a gap in nectar producing blooms. Hot dry weather conditions can result in decreasing levels of blooming vegetation. This is a tricky time for honey bees because they have to cope with an increasing number of mouths to feed since the population of the colony was increasing during the nectar flow. As a result bees can get pretty grumpy! (wouldn’t you if you had nothing much to eat). There will also be an increase in robbing as stronger colonies steel food stores from weaker ones. Consequently bees can become very defensive so be sure to take precautions and wear your protective gear.
When temperatures are hot bees will regulate the temperature inside the hive. Bees seem to cope fine but the heat is probably more difficult for the beekeeper than the bees. One thing which you should keep in mind when performing inspections on hot sunny days is to be careful where you place the frames when you take the hive apart. Don’t leave full frames in direct sunlight since the wax can start to soften and melt. This will damage the comb.
When not to open a beehive? Temperature aside, there are certain occasions when it’s advisable not to visit your hives, either because it can cause problems for your bees, or because bees are not in the best of moods for receiving a visit! A few examples are as follows:
- Don’t work bees when temperatures are very low such as below 50°F (10°C). Keep any inspections very brief to avoid chilling the hive.
- Never work beehives in cloudy or stormy weather. The same goes for windy conditions. Honey bees tend to be ill tempered at this time.
- Do not inspect hives when it’s raining. Bees can’t fly properly in the rain so they tend to stay in the hive. They are not in the best of moods if they’re not busy. On top of that you don’t want to let water and humidity into the hive (would you like it if someone lifted the roof off your house when it’s raining?)
- Don’t visit your hives after dark. For similar reasons as above – the bees are inside and they don’t like to be disturbed.
Remember, when it comes to hive inspections, less is better than more…