Beekeeping in a hot climate
Taking care of your bees in warmer weather
As every Australian knows we live in an intensely hot, dry place – and climate change isn’t helping. Last summer was a record-breaker, with heatwaves and temperatures regularly reaching over 45°C.
High temperatures can be dangerous for people and animals – including bees. Although bees like it warm, sustained overheating can kill brood and potentially weaken the colony.
We’re not saying you can’t keep bees in Australia – they’re hardy little creatures that thrive in a wide range of climates – just that it’s important to keep an eye on your bees in the warmer months. You can minimise the impact of heat by carefully positioning your hives, choosing the right hive materials, providing water, and by acting quickly if your bees start to overheat.
Heat inside the hive
For bees, the ideal internal temperature of the hive is around 35°C. They maintain this temperature in winter by huddling together, sealing cracks in the outside of the hive, and buzzing to generate heat.
In summer, large numbers of worker bees are out and about during the day, which helps to keep the temperature down. If the outside temperature is high, foragers bring water back to the hive along with nectar and pollen. As this evaporates, it helps reduce the heat and keep the hive cool. Some of the bees also beat their wings to circulate air inside the hive.
Signs of overheating
Although your hive doesn’t have to be at precisely 35°C to survive, long periods at higher temperatures can be harmful. Adult bees tend to cope with heat well, but at extremely high temperatures, brood can stop developing and die off, which weakens the colony over time. In some cases, the queen may stop laying eggs until temperatures return to normal.
If temperatures are high, keep a close eye on your hives and look for these signs of overheating:
- Increased activity – because bees need water to cool the hive when it’s hot, more bees will be flying in and out as they collect it and bring it back.
- Bearding – when it’s very hot inside, bees may leave the hive and hang off the outside in clusters or ‘beards’.
- Melted honey or wax – although this isn’t common, it’s a definite sign that your hive is overheating.
Helping bees beat the heat
Most of the time, bees are pretty good at managing hive temperature on their own. But there are a few things you can do to make it easier for them in the heat of summer.
Position your hives in a partially shaded area. If you don’t have a suitable spot on your property, or if it’s too difficult to move your hives to a shadier spot, you could rig up a shade cloth or even a sun umbrella on the hottest days.
Choose wooden roofs
Metal hive roofs may last longer, but they also conduct heat and increase the temperature in the hive. When you buy hives, opt for wood in a light colour instead. If you’ve already installed metal roofing and your bees are overheating, try covering the roofs with a light-coloured material to deflect some of the heat – plastic sheeting or even light cardboard could help.
Bees need water to keep the hive at the right temperature, so make sure they have a pond, tank, or bucket nearby. Make it easy for them by providing stones or plants to land on while they drink – they can drown if they try to land on deeper water. If you don’t have a natural water source, make sure it’s refilled frequently, especially in summer.
Ventilating your hives helps release trapped heat and circulate air more freely. But it needs to be done carefully, so the smell of honey doesn’t encourage robbing – where other bees or insects enter the hive. If you think your hives are overheating, a simple way to improve ventilation is by drilling one or two small holes in the top super, then covering with mesh to prevent robbing. Because heat rises, vents at the top are most effective, but screened bottom boards can also help with airflow.
Hive insulation is usually designed to keep hives warm in winter, but it can also help to maintain a lower temperature during the summer months. Roof insulation, in particular, can help keep the temperature stable as it reduces the impact of direct sunlight on the hive. Our Hive Doctor Therma-Feeder provides insulation and feeding all-in-one.
Because dark colours absorb heat, choose white or another pale colour when you paint your hives.
Some beekeepers reduce the number of frames per super during summer – for example, using nine frames in a ten-frame super – to increase airflow in the hive.
The right choices for unique challenges
Honey bees are amazingly adaptable animals – that’s why they’re able to survive in different climates all over the world. With an increasingly hot climate, Australian beekeepers face unique challenges during summer. But by making the right choices early on, keeping a close eye on your bees, and acting quickly if you think your bees are overheating, you can keep your hives healthy through the warmer months.