Black Hives

Some people have noticed that most of my hive boxes are painted black and have asked, “What are you, nuts?”

I would have asked the same thing a few years back. But then I moved to Flatrock, Isle of Newfoundland, where I can see the North Atlantic Ocean from my house, and it’s freezing here.

Redhead Cove, Flatrock, Newfoundland, not far from my house.

I had shrews and other setbacks that took some of the fun out of my beekeeping, but I never had much of an issue building up my colonies in the spring until I moved to Flatrock. Here’s a quick shot of the cold Labrador Current that I can see from my house:

I’ve seen other beekeepers in Newfoundland located more inland who have to makes splits in May because their hives are so full of brood, and I’m pretty sure they’re not doing anything exceptional with their bees. Once upon a time, when I lived in St. John’s (away from the ocean), my hives were like that too. My first ever swarm happened in May.

But I wasn’t sure location was the issue for me until I moved a few hives to some farmland away from the ocean last summer. The difference between those colonies and my colonies in Flatrock was astounding. It was like beekeeping in two different worlds. The inland colonies built up so quickly that one of them swarmed later in the summer. I couldn’t keep ahead of it. I wasn’t used to seeing that kind of growth from my colonies in Flatrock. I let my guard down and the bees did what bees do (but I also captured the swarm, so no biggie).

Then I met a guy on the World Wide Beekeeping forum who also keeps bees in a frozen location called Alaska, right next to a cold body of water too — and he paints his hives black. I thought, “That’s nuts,” but after talking to him and some others on the forum, I thought, “Maybe not.” Apis mellifera honey bees in Australia, essentially the same bees that I keep, do fine under extremely hot conditions (above 40°C / 104°F). Even if I painted my hives black, will the insides of the hives get any hotter than hives in Australia? I doubt it. So I went ahead and began to paint my hives black last summer, and so far so good.

A bog close to my house. The sky often looks exactly like this when I look out my living room window between November and July.

My bees over-wintered with most of the hive boxes painted black, which means they began in the spring in black hives (a first for me). Did I notice a difference between the black hives and my usual dark-green hives? Nope. It’s too early to judge because there are too many other factors that come into play. First, we had a horrible winter and spring that pushed back brood-rearing for many beekeepers close to the ocean like me. Then we had an unusually warm month of June, which we often refer to as Junuary because it’s typically nothing but cold, freezing rain drizzle and fog with glimpses of sunshine that only get our hopes up to knocked them back down into the mud again with more winter-like weather (it’s usually colder in June than it is in October). But just this past week, we’ve had more than a few days that felt like 35°C (95°F) with the humidity. (I’m confident that colonies are swarming all over the island this week.) So I can’t say if painting my hives black has helped.

But it doesn’t seem to hurt either.

Now the big question is, is there actually a difference in temperature between hive boxes that are painted black and those that aren’t? I think the answer is yes. When I take a temperature reading of a black-painted hive box and a dark-green-painted hive box, there’s usually a difference of about 5°C (whatever that is in the nonsensical Fahrenheit scale). For instance, the surface temperature of this hive box in the sun at 3:00pm in the afternoon is about 60°C (140°F):

A surface temperature reading of 60°C (140°F) on a black hive box.

The surface temperature of a green hive box higher up on the same hive is 52°C (126°F):

The surface temperature of a dark green hive box reading at 52°C (126°F), eight degrees cooler than the black hive box.

I’ve done similar tests on other hives and other hives boxes (just using empty boxes) and the overall results are the same: a higher surface temperature with the black-painted hive boxes.

Now the next question is, does that extra heat on the surface of the hive penetrate to the inside of the hive? I’m not a physicist, but I’m going to say yes. I’m not sure how much of the extra heat makes it into the hive, but in my freezing cold damp beeyard (which is an apt description for it 10 months of the year), those extra few degrees of heat might make the difference between brood-rearing and no brood rearing in late winter. It could also allow the bees to break cluster more in the spring and summer and contribute to greater brood-rearing. My bees spend a great deal of time dealing with the cold, clustering to stay warm, and there’s only so much brood-rearing that can happen in the cold. The bees don’t build much comb in the cold. They don’t go out for as many cleansing flights. There are other benefits to warmer temperatures, but brood-reading is the big one in my book.

Another question which I know will arise is, won’t the bees freeze to death in the winter once they go outside anyway? Nope. Just as many bees died in the snow this winter as they did any other winter. However, getting out in colder weather for cleansing flights might acclimate the bees to the cold weather sooner so they can forage for early-spring pollen sooner. I’ve heard a few too many officious people rattle on about how the bees won’t fly in temperatures lower than 13°C. But that’s 100% wrong and I’ve proven it — and I proved it with honey bees living in black-painted hives.

Cold creeping fog coming off the ocean in Flatrock. Not exactly a friend to honey bees.

My beeyard is frozen-ocean cold much of the time and most of my hives don’t get full sun throughout the day. That is to say, in my local climate, black-painted hives might be the way to go, just to give my bees a little extra heat. Newfoundland beekeepers in places like Clarenville or Grand Falls might cook their bees alive if they painted their hives black. But here in Flatrock, I think my bees can use all the help they can get.

Can I come to any concrete conclusions about black-painted hives yet? Nope. But I’m getting there. And so far, I don’t think black-painted hives — with proper ventilation aids in the summer — are a bad thing. But who knows? We’ll see how the rest of the summer plays out…

3 thoughts on “Black Hives

  1. Is Flatrock flatter than it looks? Admire you for keeping bees alive in that fog! Maybe even more challenging than Iceland?!

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