Summer Storms and Bearding

This blog describes how we would approach preparing our hives for impending summer storms in the future based on our experience of what was described before the event as a “10 out of 10 storm”. This information will be useful if you are a hobby beekeeper who has easy, regular access to your hive/s. If you have 50+ hives or your hives are not located on your property this information is worth considering but may be time consuming to implement.

Bees cooling down on front of hive
Bees starting to beard on the front of a hive with 2 brood boxes.

Summer started off with record rainfalls across much of the east coast this year. Rain predictions for this particular storm were as high as 200mm in some areas. We had about three days notice that we could expect between 80mm and 100mm during the 36-hour weather event. We had recently added a third box to one of our hives and had watched four other hives with two boxes beard frequently in the days before the storm. Temperatures were hitting 30° to 32° (Celsius) during that week with overnight lows in the low 20°. One hive had 3 uncapped queen cells on the last inspection. We were confident the bearding was a result of high temperatures and the bees were on the hives simply to cool down. We had to decide whether to add a super to the bearding hives or leave them as they were, not knowing how accurate the weather predictions were.

To add a super or not?

The four 2 brood box hives did not need an additional super yet. There were still empty frames in the hives for the bees to build on. Adding an additional box would run the risk of giving the entire colony too much space to heat, putting unnecessary strain on the colony. If the temperatures dropped earlier than predicted (back down to 18° after the storms with overnight lows of 9°) the risk was the colony would struggle to control the temperature of such a large open space.

Putting an additional super on the hives a day or two prior to the storm would cool the hive down and encourage the bearding bees to head back inside and possibly keep drawing wax on the empty frames.

We decided to keep the hives as they were. We thought the bees may be able to sense the change of weather and would enter the hive before hand. At the very least we thought wild bee colonies battle through summer storms all the time and they come through them so intervention is not essential.

The storm and the effect

We were hit by heavy rain, though in the end we only received about half of the predicted 100mm. We watched as the girls, still bearded on the outside of the hive, clung on and weathered the storm. The next morning the bees were still bearded on the outside of the hives. We though surely we had lost thousands of bees! On closer inspection we could see we had lost many hundreds of bees. It appeared that the bees on the edges of the beard had died – most likely from cold and exposure during the cool night. The bees in the centre of the beard were still moving and over the next 12 hours they slowly made their way back inside the hive. We watched some of the dead bees blow off of the hive and their fellow colony members removed the others. It was quite sad.

The next inspection

The cold, windy, rainy days stuck around for the first week of summer. It was a week before we could inspect the hives again to assess the losses. The next inspection amazed us. All except one of the hives were thriving as well as, if not better than before the storms hit. We have one hive we have not fed in the 3 months it has been building up as a test to determine whether bees really do need to be fed at certain times. It is our weakest hive by a considerable margin (not a coincidence I am sure). The bees in this hive had eaten the majority of their honey stores (both capped and uncapped) during the week of rain and cold weather. We reduced the colony from two brood boxes down to one because there was too much empty space after a week of gorging and no foraging.

Lesson

Next time we face a summer storm with a prolonged forecast of rain we will leave the bees to sort themselves out. The only manipulation we would consider is supplement feeding depending on the amount of stores each hive had. If the storms are early in the season or the hives don’t have a large amount of honey stores we would place feeders in the hives with a small amount of 1:1 sugar:water syrup in case the rain didn’t let up for a few days. This would prevent the risk of colonies starving.

Note for top bar hives

We observed our top bar hive was bearding as well and we had already given the bees 3 new bars to draw wax on. Again we decided not to intervene as the storm approached. The beard on the top bar was approximately 75% the size of those on the langstroth hives however there were far less casualties on the top bar – less than half those sustained by the langstroth hives. This could be because it is in a different position to the langstroth hives, however we think it is more likely that because the roof of the hive overhangs the body and the bearding bees, the bees were better protected from the storm.

On the next inspection all 3 bars were fully drawn with comb, something we were definitely not expecting. In future we would also leave the bees in our top bar hives to do it their way.

Thanks for reading, enjoy your journey!

 

 

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