A cleansing flight is the polite term for a pooping flight. It’s usually noticeable when the bees have been stuck in the hive for a while (days, weeks or even months in the winter), all that time holding in it. Then a warm day comes along and they rush outside to let it all out as quick as they can. Hence, they cleanse themselves of all the poop.
Some of my bees got out for cleansing flights a couple days ago and a bunch of them landed on the side of my shed and began scenting, grooming each other, and I saw a little trophallaxis happening too. And it wasn’t a swarm. I’ve only been keeping bees since 2010 (not a long time) with a relatively small number of hives, and I rarely meet up with other beekeepers, so it’s not surprising that I’ve never seen or heard about this before.
My best guess is that the bees have been clustered deep down in their hives all winter, buried under snow for most of it, and they haven’t had a good day for cleansing flights until now. Honey bees communicate and get to know each other by touching (grooming, bumping up to each other) and feeding each other through the exchange of enzymatic fluids in their guts. It’s how the smell of each other and, more importantly, the queen is spread throughout the colony. It’s a big part of how they stay together and work together as a single super-organism. From what I’ve seen, they usually do this kind of getting-to-know-each-other-again-after-a-long-hard-winter socialising inside or near the entrance of the hive. But I guess they were just enjoying the fresh air and sunshine so much, some of them decided to stay outside and others joined in the party.
UPDATE: It’s obvious now what the bees are doing. They’re hanging out in a warm spot of sunshine just like cats do.
I had to reassure my neighbour’s kids today that all the dead bees they’re finding in the snow around their house is normal for this time of year, especially on windless sunny days like today.
These bees are not climbing up a mountain. They’re dead. (March 13th, 2020, Flatrock, Newfoundland.)
It wasn’t exactly warm today, closer to 0°C than anything else (32°F), but many bees were flying and pooping all over the snow close to their hives. (I’ll skip those pictures, but here’s a sample from yesteryear.)
Dead bees in the snow. Nothing to see here, folks. Just another day. (March 13th, 2020.)
I’m usually reassured when I see the bees flying about in the winter, even if hundreds of them end up dead in the snow. It can signal bad news on occasion, but most of the time the message I hear from the colony is, “We’re not dead,” so I’m happy.
It can be heart-breaking for some, but the fact is, hundreds of bees die in a healthy colony every day. That’s the way it is. It’s not as bad in the wintertime. It just looks bad because it’s often more noticeable with the dark bees lying dead against a white background of snow. But it’s normal (most of the time).
July 2019 Introduction: I remove the mesh from the top entrances of my hives as soon as I see bees crowding to push their way through the mesh. As long as the hives aren’t buried deep in snow so that shrews can walk right up to the top entrance and hop in, I don’t worry so much about mesh on the top entrance, though I do temporarily remove them in the winter on warm days when the bees are trying to get out on cleansing flights.
I used 6mm mesh (quarter-inch mesh) on my hives this winter for the first time because I lost most of my colonies last winter when shrews managed to squeeze through the half-inch mesh I kept on the bottom entrances. I’m not sure if the shrews got into the hives through the top entrances, but to be safe this winter, I covered both the top and bottom entrances with 6mm mesh. Now I’m wondering when I should remove the mesh, at least from the top entrances.
Opening the quarter-inch mesh and releasing the bees for cleansing flights. (March 19, 2016.)
July 2019 Introduction: I don’t add dry sugar to my hives like this anymore. I use sugar bricks instead. However, I’d probably follow this method if I couldn’t use sugar bricks.
I usually pour dry sugar over newspaper into my Langstroth honey bee hives so the bees have something to eat just in case they run out of honey during the winter. Some people refer to it as the Mountain Camp Method, but I’m00 pretty sure beekeepers have been pouring dry sugar into their hives long before Mr Camp came along and popularized it. I’ll call it Dry Sugar Feeding for now on. In any case, it may not be the best method for feeding bees over the winter, but it works well for me and that’s what matters most. I like it because it’s the easiest method I’ve ever tried and it may be better for the bees than hard candy or candy boards. Do a little research on Hydroxymethylfurfural and you’ll know what I’m talking about.
2 kg of dry sugar over the top bars.
When I first fed my bees dry sugar, I waited until January or February when the bees, if they were low on honey, would cover most of the top bars in the hive. But waiting that long is a pain in the butt for all kinds of reasons, so now I put the sugar in long before the bees really need it — just like I did today. Here’s an 11-minute video recorded a few hours ago that demonstrates the dry sugar method in all its glory. I also explain near the end how moisture quilts work.
P.S.: I’m not a big fan of feeding the bees pollen patties early in the winter because most of the time they don’t need it and it’s not always good to give the bees solids when they can’t get outside for cleansing flights. I try to reserve pollen patties for small colonies that could use a little boost in brood production. The colony in the video that I refer to as being about the size of a human head will get a pollen patty in a week or two. A small cluster like that, which is likely to get smaller before it gets bigger, won’t be able to stay warm much longer. The colony could be in trouble if I can’t get the queen laying soon.
Another postscript (written in part as a response to the first comment): If I had to do this again, I would place something round in the middle of the newspaper, a small bowl or a jar perhaps. Then after I poured the sugar on, I’d remove the bowl or jar so that a round sugar-free area of newspaper was left behind. Then I’d cut a hole in the exposed newspaper so that when the cluster came up, the bees would go through the hole without having to chew through the newspaper to get at the sugar. The hole would also allow moisture from the cluster to rise directly up to the moisture quilt. (If I have a chance, I’ll record a follow-up video.)
Someone asked me when, why and how I feed my bees pollen patties. Here’s a photo from one of my first posts about the topic, Adding Pollen Patties. The colony pictured below, by the way, is starving. Usually the way it works is the more winter bees above the top bars, the less honey there is in the hive (usually, not always).
Adding a pollen patty to a very hungry colony. (February, 2011.)
I’ve written about pollen patties a bunch of times, so I’m likely to repeat myself here. Do a search of “patties” in my little search engine box up at the top for more detailed information with videos and photos and so on. Continue reading →
The honey bee colony in Hive #1 came to life in the morning sun like gang busters today. It was 13°C by 10 o’clock. I noticed activity near the bottom entrance — for the first time this year. I removed the entrance reducer to see if the extra air circulation would bring out more bees through the bottom. It did. The temperature reached nearly 15°C by 10:30 and the bees in Hive #2 began to fly around too, though not nearly as much as Hive #1. None of this may seem like a big deal, but for a first-year beekeeper, this is huge. The bees have survived the winter (so far). How do they do it?
The temperature continued to rise, but the sun disappeared and the bees went back inside after about 90 minutes. I then put the entrance reducer back on. It was warmer than usual, but not warm enough to stay out all day and start any kind of major clean up. (I didn’t see them pulling out any of the thousands of dead winter bees piled up inside the hive.) They haven’t survived the winter yet, but any kind of activity like this — I take it as a good sign.
It’s interesting that the colony in Hive #1, the same colony that shut down dramatically in the fall, is the first colony to show signs of life as soon as the weather warms up. Their behaviour seems to make sense for bees that may have some Carniolans bred into them. As usual, I don’t really know. Quoting from the Wikipedia:
“These bees [Carniolans] are particularly adept at adjusting worker population to nectar availability. It relies on these rapid adjustments of population levels to rapidly expand worker bee populations after nectar becomes available in the spring, and, again, to rapidly cut off brood production when nectar ceases to be available in quantity.”