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Painting native Australian bee hives black for winter

We have been keeping Australian Native bees for about six of seven or years now and have ended up with quite a few hives... we think we have 16 or so at the moment. We have the very social and easily domesticated Carbonarii and Hockingsii and just recently acquired an Autralis hive as well! There are 1700 odd Australian Native bee species but most of them are solitary. The hatch, eat, pupate, find a mate, lay eggs and die without hanging out with any other of their bee friends. As I said, solitary bees!

There are (I think) five species of social native bee in Australia and they are all tropical bees. The keepers spend a lot of energy keeping the hives cool in the Summer and so the standard hive is painted white to reflect the heat, especially if the hive is kept in the full sun. Now this works really well if you are living in the tropics and if your hives are in the sun. We recently moved to the Gold Coast Hinterland and its decidedly cooler here! The hives are only in the sun for a few hours a day at the moment as its Winter and we have a lot of tall trees around. The bees only get up and forage at a certain temperature and we were seeing that these girls were only up and active for short periods of time each sunny day.

Of the four hives we bought with us, the Hockingsii was struggling before we got here (they should have stayed in Brissy but we had put lots of friends and family under enough pressure to "Winter" our other twelve hives of babies as it was, so we took the risk and bought them with us). Not only were they struggling, but I came home one afternoon to find the hive smashed on the ground as it had fallen off its shelf - so these girls were going to need all the help they could get, they were really on the back foot.

Here's what we did...

The girls will only forage when the temperature is at a certain point, so we started by putting them in the sunniest place in the yard with the black fence in the background hoping that would bring up the ambient temperature.

The wooden hive is the Hockinsii hive. Its housed in a "FROTH" hive (Froggys 'Riginal Other Type Hive) rather than the traditional long Felhaber hive.  It has a half height honey box and a tropical lid. It was finished with a beeswax oil mixture known as breadboard butter.

The white hive is a standard OATH hive (Original Australian Trigona Hive) with a full size honey box and tropical lid on it. It is painted in the standard white.

This is the Australis Hive. - Its a standard hive made by Nick Powell and is brand new with just a fist sized brood in there. This one has a piece of ridge capping meant for a house roof on the top to protect it from the worst weather as this one was originally on a shed roof. Australis are a lot more cold tolerant than the others so we popped them in the sun and gave them a black polythene cover. They don't regulate their hive temperature. They just get on with it! Their entrance hole gets blocked up every night and they break a piece off when its warm enough in the mornings and stick their little black faces out and check the weather. If its a lovely day, they are usually the first ones up and about. If they don't like look of the weather, they block that entrance up tight and disappear inside to watch movies and snuggle under the doona!

Our first attempt to raise the temperature of the hives was to cover them with black polythene and bluetac it on. It certainly raised the air temperature between the plastic and the hive as we could feel it with our hands. This might have worked - but it was always falling off, wasn't tight enough and didn't convince us that it was working well enough. We discussed painting them black but have been indoctrinated our whole bee keeping lives about keeping the hives cool not warm and it seemed counter intuitive...

And so one sunny afternoon just before the Winter Solstice, I decided to give it a go. The black paint was just sitting there, the husband and cat were having a snooze, and I figured they could always be painted back to white if we over heated them. My theory was that its easier to cool things down than to heat them up!

So I started painting on the sides. The bees were out and about and didn't seem bothered at all by the paint or fumes, not that I could smell much. I kept the paint well away from their entrance at first. The black paint dried really quickly in the hot sun and a few bees did land on it but seemed to fly off quick enough. It did feel much hotter to my hand than the white patches.  We ended up putting two coats on each hive in an hour as it dried so quickly.

As soon as the husband woke up and discovered my activities he was drafted into painting the tops as I was too short to see them and because the bees didn't seem bothered in the slightest, we got closer and closer to their entrance. You can see the influence of Play School with the square, arched and round window shaped entrances on our door designs!

The idea is that a black hive will hold the heat longer and allow the bees to be at foraging temperature longer each day. My theory is that if you only get up for three or four hours a day to shop, build and tidy the house then you wont get as much done. In an established hive, this wont be a problem in the winter. But for our struggling Hockingsii girls we want them to have the maximum time each day to  rebuild their home and get all the things they need for their babies hatching inside.

We (I, really) did no preparation whatsoever to the hives and used a basic acrylic black paint from another project. Its not the worst paint job in the world, but I think its a good contender for the title!

We could kid ourselves that the bees are up earlier and stay out longer when the sun is shining. We never see them when its overcast, raining or windy anyway. We did order some temperature thingos on the internet to measure the temperature inside the hive but they never arrived and we ended up getting the money back for them. We would rather have had the gauges as we were hoping to see what the internal temperature was before we painted them and then again afterwards. So for now, we are running on anecdotal observation.  

Our current theory is that come Summer, we can move them to a shady spot, cover them with a white reflector box, paint them white or make a shade cover if we think its too hot for them. Hopefully by then we will have those temperature probes and we will know for sure.

What have you done with your hives over Winter? Are they just going about their business because you live in the right place for them or have you got some out of their natural range and do things to help them out? If you do, Id love to hear about it. Leave a note in the comments section!

Score card:
Green-ness: 5/5 for having Native Bees! 
Frugal-ness: 5/5 for using something I already had!
Time cost: about 10 minutes per hive.
Skill level: Basic slopping paint around skill but advanced bee in the paint alert skills!
Fun-ness: Great fun to be able to do something practical to look after these hard working girls that we are so fond of!


Steve said…
What you could have done instead of paint, was use black electrical tape and peel it off once the warmer weather returns.

We have both our carbonaria hives against the south-east facing, back wall. One is pretty much in the open and the other is under our back stairs. The hive under the stairs seems to become active earlier than the one in the open. I wonder if that's just the fact the stairs and verandah are keeping it slightly warmer overnight, a bit like cloudy nights being warmer than starry ones.

I have a feeling the bees check the outside temperature before venturing from the hive, so the hive temperature won't make much difference to them foraging. That said, if the hive is too cold, then they have to work harder inside to regulate the temp and they use up resources as a result. The same when the hive gets too hot.
Practical Frog said…
Hey Steve! One of the advantages of living so far away from the rest of the world is the peace quiet and tranquillity. One of the disadvantages of living so far away from the rest of the world is that we are no where near the shops! When I looked in the shed, I found silver tape but no black. I did, however, find black paint and doing it as inspiration struck with the paint verses travelling an hour or so to get a roll of tape was a persuasive argument! ;)
Our theory is that that native hives are painted white to help the bees cope with the Brisbane summers heat. We also insulate them with polystyrene covers in the winter, so internal temperature must be important (or theres a lot of us out there buying into this theory). So we figured painting them black and raising the temperature, at least when the sun was shining would be a good thing. It looks like the weak Hockingsii hive is about to succumb to its fate as in the last cold snap their foraging numbers fell dramatically. Its also about 6 weeks since the hive fell and smashed open and that would have been the workers we should have seen hatch now's brood that was on the ground... The carbs are going great guns and as soon as the sun comes up and hits the hive, they are out and about doing their thing in great clouds of bees. The Australis like the sun, but do seem to spend a lot of time with their front door slammed shut by comparison. Considering I cant really tell the species apart visually by individual bee, I have no trouble telling which hives are really active! Ill keep you osted on what happens next! - Kara x
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