Posted by: Pam B. Newberry | January 12, 2012

A New Year – A New Beginning – It’s Cleansing Time!


Honey bees do a remarkable thing in the winter. They hold it! Yep, that is what I said. They hold it! They don’t go to the bathroom in their hive. They wait until a warm day (i.e., temperatures must be at least above 55 degrees F) and they take what beekeepers call “a Cleansing Flight.”

If you know of a beekeeper, find out when you can go visit his or her hives on a nice warm day in winter and you’ll be amazed. And, if you have a vehicle that you’ve noticed little, tiny black dots on it during a warm day in winter, those dots are a result of a cleansing flight by honey bees near by.

A few days ago, we captured in the picture (Picture 1), the bees taking flight on a nice warm day . If this were a video, you’d see that as fast as the bees fly out of the hive, they fly back in. They don’t dilly-dally around. They get down to business, do their business, and get back to helping keep the brood and the rest of the hive warm.

Picture 1 - Hive 2 w/Honey Bees in Cleansing Flight

This hive is what we refer to as Hive 2. It looks healthy and there seems to be a lot of bees scrambling out of the small hive opening. We narrow the hive opening in order to reduce the loss of heat and to keep vermin, such as mice out of the hives.

The next picture of Hive 3 seems less active. This hive, in late summer/early fall, we placed a second super on with frames. Our bee mentor said he was afraid we may have done that too late and now we think he may have been right. The hive grew too big, too fast. We think we may have had a late fall swarm. Since we are young beekeepers, we didn’t recognize when a swarm happens  or realize it. Now, it appears this hive is smaller in numbers, which makes it hard for the bees to make it through the winter. We hope we are wrong. (See Picture 2)

Picture 2 - Hive 3 w/Honey Bees in Cleansing Flight

Honey bees need several things in order to make it through the winter. They need about 60 lbs. of honey stored; a large number of winter bees to protect the brood and keep the hive warm; and they need a well established brood and hive that is healthy so that the stress of winter does not reduce the hive in number any more than is necessary.

A “warm day opportunity” and a warm day in winter is looked upon as an opportunity for the beekeeper just as it is a cleansing time for the honey bee. This day is opportune because the beekeeper can help stack the odds in favor of his or her bees by giving them a supplemental feeding and it gives him or her a chance to check on the hives to make sure the hives are faring well.

Hive One (shown in Picture 3) shows a feeder in place on top of the hive body. The bees have been using propolis to varnish the wood, cracks, and crevices carefully filling them so that no noxious life forms may live in the hive and pose a hazard to the bees. Propolis also waterproofs the inside of the hive and protects the hive from attack by invaders, such as bacteria, molds, yeasts, fungi, insects, and other pests. In the picture, notice the tops of the frames have some honeycomb being built. You’ll also see a slight sheen in the edges of the super as it aligns with the hive body. The bees have been working to seal the two boxes together. When we left the feeder in the hive and came back a few days later, we found the bees had begun to seal the feeder to the frames using propolis.

Picture 3 - Hive One showing inside of hive

Another amazing fact that Honey Bees use propolis is to encompass a large animal in the hive, such as a snake or a mouse. The bees can’t move the large animal out of the hive, so they remove body hair from the animal, cover it with propolis, and it will reduce the odor of the decaying animal as well as reduce microbial growth. This protects them and if I were to come across something like that I do believe I’d stay away from that hive. Wow!

The fascinating part of beekeeping so far has been learning how efficient the honey bee is in all things. The picture of Hive 2 (See Picture 4) shows just how busy the little ladies are even in the cold of winter. When we placed the two supers on top of the hive body to provide a place to keep the feeder when we feed, the tops of the frames were free of any honeycomb or traces of activity by the bees. If you look carefully at Picture 4, you’ll see the bees have built a lot of honeycomb and used the propolis. They only do this on warm days as when the temperature is below 50, they must tend to the brood and work their wings to circulate heat to keep the hive at a constant temperature of 92 degrees F.

Picture 4 - Hive 2 inside of the hive

Warm periods in the winter are very important for two main reasons, first the bees must periodically break the cluster they form to protect the hive and gorge on their honey stores or they will starve. It is the honey and their fat bodies that provide the energy for warming the cluster interior to the needed temperature to protect the brood. Second, a warm period provides for the cleansing flight to allow the bees to void their feces. Any older bees will be found dead on the snow after such winter flights. Because we’ve not had too much snow this year and many warm days so far, we’ve not seen that many bees perish. It doesn’t mean they haven’t, it just means we haven’t seen much evidence close to the hives. Since the ones who perish tend to be older bees, it is not a serious situation as their time with us is limited and they have already provided a great service to their colony.

Picture 5 - Hive 3 inside of the hive

Picture 5 shows the interior of Hive 3. This hive is the one mentioned earlier that we fear had a late, fall swarm. It is also our largest hive with an extra super including frames full of honey. Hobbit King and I have a bet going on. He thinks the hive is weak due to the fall swarm. I think the bees are just fine and that their number is far greater than it appears. You see, we haven’t checked down below this upper super, so we really don’t know if the lower hive body is small in number or booming with bees.  Hobbit King is currently sitting in his easy chair dreaming of how he’ll spend his winnings when we find out this spring.


Picture 6 - Hive 4 inside of hive with lots of bees - Should we be worried?

Notice how full Hive 4 looks. (See picture 6). This hive was a very weak hive, or so we thought. It is just buzzing with activity and the bees look like they are outgrowing their home. Or are they? Could they be out of food and the cluster has moved to the top? We don’t know. We will need to keep a close eye on this hive as March nears or if the weather stays warmer than normal as a swarm may happen when we are not looking or worse the little ladies could starve. It could result in us loosing our hive before we are prepared to prevent it.

It is a new year for our honey bees. They are working through the cold days to keep the hive protected and warm while preparing for the arrival of spring.

Long, cold winter days and nights are ideal for beekeepers to talk and read about bees. Hobbit King and I are making plans and goals for beekeeping chores to come this spring. January is a good time to reflect on how the hives did the previous year and assemble or repair beekeeping equipment. It is also a great time to attend a beekeeper meeting. We’ll “bee” going to our MEBA meeting in a few weeks. Until then, reflect on your past year, ponder what changes you need to make, prepare for spring arrival, and learn from the honey bee!

Always with Honey Cheers,
Hobbit Queen

P.S. Be sure to vote if you like this blog post. It sure helps with the ranking. And, sign-up to follow along…Happy Cleansing Flights To You!


  1. I’ve been known to have a few good cleansing flights in my time 😛

    Seriously, that was very interesting. Who knew that bees pooed? It makes sense now. When I see those little black dots, I’ll know enough to go ewwwww.

    Thanks for the well thought out, well illustrated post, HQ.


    • Cleansing flights are indeed fun! 🙂 Thanks for your loyal reading Sandra…hope your weather your way is going well and not too harsh!


  2. Bees love their propolis 🙂

    It looks like you’re feeding syrup. Usually candy or fondant is recommended during winter as sugar syrup excites the bees and can disturb the cluster. The bees can also struggle to process it in winter due to the lower temperatures and it is then liable to fermentation.

    Most beekeepers I know buy a big slab of fondant, make a slit in the centre and put it over the crownboard or directly over the frames if they are light on stores. This seems to work well and insulation can be put over the top of the fondant and crownboard, whereas the sugar syrup method you’re using looks like it leaves a lot of empty space above the frames. Just a thought.


    • Thanks for your comment…we are indeed using syrup.

      This is our first winter with our bees. Our bee mentor recommended that for where we are located we plan to do one or two supplement feedings. This post was our first supplemental feeding.

      We have a beekeeper’s association meeting later this month and I’ll poll to see what everyone does, but I believe the majority have stated at previous meetings that they setup their system similar to how we’ve shown in this post — some place a jar over the vent hole of the top cover while others place the feeder in the front.

      Our weather is very mild compared to some areas. We do not leave the syrup in longer than one day and only supply the bees about 1/4 of the container with syrup at a 2 to 1 ratio. We spent most of the late summer making sure the winter stores were at least at 60 lbs and we did not rob from the bees at all this year.

      We had heard and had read about the use of fondant, but many of our bee colleagues shared it was not something we should try our first year out. Likewise, we were advised not use insulation of any type on our hives as it has proven to be too warm for the bees and they think they can come out into the cold, and then they die.

      It is interesting to hear and read how many different methods are used for the keeping of bees. We are finding that there are as many different mehtods to try as their are bees. 🙂

      Thanks again for taking the time to read our blog and to provide feedback…
      Hobbit Queen


      • It’s generally best to follow the advice of local beekeepers as they know what suits your climate. It sounds like you have plenty of stores in any case. I wonder why you were advised not to use fondant in your first year, I’ve found it very easy and less work than making up the syrup. Hope they continue to do as well!


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