bee biology wintering

A warm, dry day is good for winter bees

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.



  • I have a serious amount of hives that died this winter from what appears to be Nosema apis. Large amounts of feces on top bars and running down capped honey. All hives are dead with plenty of honey stores still in boxes. I need to know how to treat the remainder of my hives so this does not spread further. Also, what do I do with the frames? There is lots of honey but with feces on the cappings and frames. This could be a great source of food for splits or packages but I am afraid I am just spreading disease. What do you use to treat the bees in healthy hives as prevention?

    Thanks for the great website.

  • My bees are flying. We have temps in the high 50’s right now, normally we are around 20 degrees. Glad to know this is good for the bees. There is always a blog post to answer questions. Is there anything else that can be done for them in unseasonably warm weather? They have plenty of honey stores (I left 3 full deeps on my hives), or do I just need to quit worrying and let the bees be? Thanks!

  • Rusty:

    I’ve noticed in the last week or so that my oldest hive, (which was the weaker of the original two, but survived the winter) has bee poop on the front and on the landing board. None of the other three hives are even close to being proportionate. Hive was last opened about one week ago. There was no feces inside the hive and everything looked OK for a queen I’ve been on the fence about.

    The weather has been crazy, with sun, hail, rain.

    The local bee supply recommended re-queening with a more vigorous queen. I’m not sure if that would help.

    My immediate plan is to re-inspect the interior when temperature reaches 60 degrees, clean up as needed and hope the nectar flow heals all.

    Any thoughts?

    Thank you!

    • Jerry,

      That’s exactly what I would do. It sounds like honey bee dysentery and not like Nosema, so I would just wait and see if it clears up. If it was something worse, like Nosema apis, you wouldn’t want to waste a new queen on it…in my opinion.

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