PHOTO: Daniel Johnson
Kristina Mercedes Urquhart
January 16, 2018

During some Appalachian winters, we’ll get the occasional warm day. That said, these rare warm winter days are often accompanied by rain. If you’re anything like me, you’ve been fretting through the early freezes of November and December, and you’re eager to see how your bees are doing. Did they survive the low temperatures? How are their food stores? Is there damage we need to know about, or a pest we might have missed?

By and large, however, inspecting hives on a rainy day is a big beekeeping no-no. Why? Well, bees keep a very controlled environment in their hives. Their homes are climate controlled down to the degree, and they’re not fans of their space being sullied. Bees are sensitive to smells, as well, and any breech into their sweet smelling abode is enough to put them on the alert and even make them mad.

Wet and rainy days add an additional element bees don’t like: moisture. There are many reasons why bees don’t care for the rain. While they are able to fly in the rain, they don’t care to, because they use the sun for navigation. Cloudy and overcast days make this challenging. Flying on such days, they risk death or getting lost. Heavy rains will slow bees’ flight significantly, and very large and heavy rain can break bees’ wings.

In the hive, water is a delicate element that they balance to a fine degree. Like any creatures, bees need water for sustenance. In addition to foraging for nectar (for honey), pollen (for protein) and tree resin (to create the sticky substance known as “bee glue”), honeybees forage for water. When nectar is too thick, water can be added to get the right balance of moisture. Most nectar is fanned, however, to reduce its water content, down to about 18 percent; combined with enzymes added by house bees, this process turns raw flower nectar into honey.

What does all of this have to do with hive inspections in the rain?

When we crack open the outer and inner covers to the hive, we expose the otherwise sealed environment to the elements. This introduces foreign moisture into the hive. Just as after every inspection, the bees must repair the damage done by the beekeeper during a rainy day inspection, with added work: fanning and removing the moisture. If temperatures go below freezing that evening, you’ve put your bees in an even worse position. Moisture is the enemy of the overwintering honeybee, and time is not on their side.

I hope that is incentive enough to leave the overwintering bee alone in the rain. But in case it’s not, consider this: During rainy days (winter or summer), all the bees are home. Foraging bees are grounded and are waiting idly. The queen and house bees continue with their duties, but the hive will be at full population. That means you’ll encounter many bees, and many developed stingers, in a cranky mood because of the rain. Most beekeepers learn the hard way that rainy day hive inspections are a quick way to increase your resistance to stings through inoculations.

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