Ask a local master gardener about winter bee-spotting

  • white snow on traditional bee hives smartview27

For the Gazette
Published: 2/8/2019 11:07:27 AM

Q: Earlier this week when it was quite warm I was outside and saw a bee flying! I was so surprised. I thought they hibernated all winter? —J.S., Amherst


A: How fun that you saw that happy bee, J.S. What you happened upon was an event that can occur on warm days during winter, which we had on Monday and Tuesday this week when temperatures rose above 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Once temps reach 55 degrees, bees can fly without freezing. Your bee was likely a honey bee taking a “cleansing” flight.

A cleansing flight is when bees take advantage of a warm day and essentially take a quick bathroom break outside the hive. No indoor bathrooms in the beehive! They have been holed up in the hive for days, weeks, even months now and have had to keep the hive clean to stay healthy. When a quick exit opportunity arises, they take advantage of it.

They have to time their flight correctly so the temperature does not dip too low while they are out, or else they may get stiff from the cold and not be able to return to the hive. Because of this constraint, cleansing flights are typically quick trips close to home.

If you happen to live on a bee highway or near a hive, you may notice tiny, sticky, yellow streaks on the snow or ground as a result of this cleansing process. This time of year it is not likely to get on outdoor furniture, so it should not be a problem. Come spring, when the bees become more active, you can try using a hose to get it off — or soaking any impacted items with water for 20 minutes followed by a soapy water scrub . 

Sometimes the bees also take this warm up opportunity to do some light housekeeping, ridding the hive of debris. Dead bees, parasites, wax bits, and defective larvae can accumulate inside the hive over the winter. These may be removed as part of this impromptu cleaning experience. This cleansing and cleaning process is a good sign of a healthy, well-functioning colony. 

Good noticing your outdoor environment, J.S., and thanks for asking a local master gardener.

Have a gardening dilemma? Please send questions, along with your name/initials and community, to the Western Massachusetts Master Gardener Association at One question will be selected and answered per week.

Daily Hampshire Gazette Office

115 Conz Street
Northampton, MA 01061


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