Today, western Washington is a “fly zone.” That’s what I call a day in the winter that is both warm enough and dry enough for the honey bees to fly. I spent a few minutes this afternoon walking from hive to hive just to make sure everyone was out and about—and they were.
I get very excited to have one of these days in November, December, January, or February because every one of them shortens the time the bees have to wait between cleansing flights. “Cleansing flight” is the rather Victorian term given to a bee’s excursion from the hive to dispose of feces that has built up over a period of days or weeks.
Since bees do not hibernate, they eat and drink—and therefore form feces—all winter long. On the unusual winter days when it is both warm and dry enough to fly, they leave the hive to empty their intestines.
Although there are other periods during which a bee holds its feces (such as the larval stage) none approach the length of winter confinement. Any food with a lot of solids in it makes this stretch of time harder for the bees, and that is the very reason that refined sugar makes such a good wintertime food supplement—it gives bees energy without a lot of components that go into the waste stream.
In fact, some honeys are better than others for overwintering because of the number of particulates and other ingredients. Although these optional extras may be good from a nutritional point of view, they are bad from a waste management point of view.
Honey bees are generally very discreet about defecation and drop it as far from the hive as possible. About the only time large amounts of feces are seen in the hive is when the colony is infected with Nosema apis or has dysentery. Nosema apis is a microsporidian that lives in the bee gut and interferes with digestion. Dysentery—unlike the human disease with the same name—usually refers to a situation where the food quality is so poor that the bee cannot hold the feces until a warm day.
Beekeepers often believe that any sign of feces on the hive, hive stand, landing board, or snow in front of the hive is a sure sign of Nosema or dysentery. This is simply not true. Sometimes the weather just doesn’t cooperate and the bees are forced to make short, quick flights in the vicinity of the hive and then duck back inside before they freeze to death. In situations like these it is not unusual to see fecal droppings on the hive.
Fecal build-up on the top bars, dripping across the comb, or in great quantities at the entrance is another story and requires further investigation. In any case, do not panic. It is possible for a colony to recover from either Nosema apis or dysentery if the colony is populous and otherwise healthy.