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How to paint a bee hive

Paint meEven though our Easy Hive came with hand-written instructions straight out of Alice in Wonderland, the first question I researched was not how but whether to paint my new hive.

Should I paint my hive?
The question isn't as crazy as it sounds --- after all, honeybees had been living happily in unpainted trees for generations before we took them under our wing.  It turns out the reason we paint our hives has more to do with the beekeeper than the bees.  Unpainted hives tend to rot sooner, so we add paint to the outside as a waterproofing layer.

In some cases, you may not need to waterproof your hive at all.  In addition to our new top bar hive, we're also trying out a Warre hive this year, and the version we bought is made out of Western Red Cedar.  Cedar and redwood hives are naturally rot resistant, so many beekeepers leave the wood completely untreated.  We'll probably follow suit since the hives were back-ordered and are due to arrive on the same day as our bees.  (Yikes!)

Painting a top bar hiveWhat should I paint onto my hive?
Cheaper lumber is usually soft pine, and will rot pretty quickly if not waterproofed in some way, so we chose to protect our top bar hive.  You can use exterior latex paint, raw linseed oil (not boiled or the chemicals will affect your bees), tung oil, or a heated mixture of linseed oil and beeswax.  I wanted to try raw linseed oil since I suspected an oiled hive would outgas moisture better than a painted hive, but none of our local stores carried the item, so we went with paint.

What color should I paint my hive?
The most common question you hear from new beekeepers is --- what color should I paint my hive?  The traditional answer is "white", but the real answer is a bit more complex.  Bees don't particularly care what color their hive is, but pale hives will reflect the sun and keep the colony from overheating in the winter.  On the other hand, if you live in a cold climate, you might want to soak up the sun's rays, in which case you should choose a dark color.

If you're going to have several hives close to each other, it's a good idea to paint each one with a different color and/or pattern to prevent the common problem of bees getting lost and going home to the wrong hive.  In apiaries with rows of identical white hives, beekeepers notice that the colonies on the ends tend to be stronger than those in the middle of the line, due to the tendency of worker bees to "drift" --- the workers think they're going home, but ending up in the next hive over.  This issue is less relevant if you are scattering hives around a complex landscape, and bees are unlikely to drift between different styles of hives.

How do I paint my hive?
Painting bee hiveAssuming you've chosen to use paint to waterproof your hive, your next choice is whether to add a primer underneath, or just to use multiple layers of paint.  If it's going to bother you when you can see a bit of wood grain beneath your paint, go ahead and paint on two layers of primer (drying in between), then three layers of paint.  Most beekeepers skip the primer, though, and simply apply two layers of paint.  (If you're using a waterproofing oil, don't use a primer.)

Painting a Langstroth hiveNo matter which type of waterproofing you choose, you should apply it only to the outside surfaces of the hive, both to keep the chemicals away from the bees and because your livestock will prefer to coat the inside of their hive with disease-resistant propolis instead.  Most beekeepers recommend that you don't paint the top and bottom edges of Langstroth hive bodies since paint on these surfaces tends to stick together when the boxes meet.  The rule of thumb is --- paint where rain falls or splashes, not where bees walk or wood joins.

My last tip is --- try to paint your hive several days before the bees arrive!  Bees don't like chemicals of any kind and that new paint smell isn't going to help them settle in (and stay healthy.)

I've seen some beautiful photos on the internet of uniquely painted bee hives.  If you've gone the extra mile to make your ladies' home stylish, I hope you'll leave a link or photo in the comments!

Our chicken waterer makes care of the backyard flock nearly as easy as tending a hive of bees.

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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It is the roofs of hives which are most exposed to the weather. If they are covered with metal or other waterproof material, the rest of the hive is much less important. A thin layer of aluminum will do the job nicely.
Comment by Errol Mon Apr 23 08:33:06 2012
Great point about the roofs, which are exposed to the most weather. This is why we make the roof shingles out of cedar, though the rest of the hive is white or yellow pine.
Comment by EasyHives Mon Apr 23 11:30:12 2012

Looks like Everett beat me to mentioning the cedar roofs on his hives! I probably didn't have to paint them, but since I was painting everything else, I went for it. We're actually thinking of following Daddy's advice too and putting a layer of flashing on the way they do on Langstroth covers, just for safety.

I hope I didn't make it sound like I thought the Easy Hives were made of cheaper lumber than other hives. I reread my post and it sounded a bit like that.... :-) For the record, any hive you buy that's not specifically listed as being made out of some other kind of lumber is almost certainly pine.

Comment by anna Mon Apr 23 12:20:09 2012

What chemicals are you afraid of with boiled linseed oil? There are usually some metallic salts in the oil to catalyze the drying reaction, but that would be only a very small amount, and they wouldn't evaporate. Some boilded linseed oil may contain petroleum based solvents to make it thinner. But those should evaporate relatively quickly. And wood also naturally contains solvents (terpenes and sometimes n-heptane) in its resin!

But even water based paints contain some solvents. And for outside use I'd stil recommend solvent-borne (a.k.a oil-based) paints because they tend to last longer.

As a rule, latex based paints are not very suitable for outside use.

Comment by Roland_Smith Mon Apr 23 13:16:04 2012

Roland --- I actually don't know the specifics on chemicals in boiled linseed oil --- I've just been reading beekeeping forums that recommend against it. They could be overreacting, but I figure it's better to be safe than sorry....

The exterior latex paint we used on our other hives has held up quite well outside. Presumably they do something to the exterior grade to make it more likely to handle the weather?

Comment by anna Mon Apr 23 13:26:08 2012
They definitely do something to it; add more chemicals. :-)
Comment by Roland_Smith Mon Apr 23 15:32:23 2012
Roland --- Yep, I figured as much. I wonder which paint is really better for the bees?
Comment by anna Mon Apr 23 18:08:24 2012

Basically I think it's impossible to answer your question conclusively.

If you allow the paint to dry (cure) properly in a well-ventilated area, so that any solvents have time to evaporate, those shouldn't bother the bees much. And well-cured paint shouldn't release much uncured compounds. As long as the sun doesn't break down the paint binder (the paint looses its shine and starts to give off dust, known as "chalking") there should not be much coming out of the paint.

If honeybees in the wild can nest in resinous trees, boiled linseed oil diluted with odorless mineral spirits should not harm them, I'd think. Natural turpentine is generally considered as more toxic and more flammable than odorless mineral spirits.

Comment by Roland_Smith Tue Apr 24 14:22:15 2012
Roland --- Well, I would think someone would have studied it by now, but I didn't take the time to search the literature... :-)
Comment by anna Tue Apr 24 18:53:45 2012

I use one coat of primer plus two coats of paint. I use exterior grade latex.

For a pic of a hive body I painted see below:

Comment by RDG Tue Apr 24 22:59:32 2012
RDG --- Thanks for sharing your hive-painting method!
Comment by anna Wed Apr 25 09:30:44 2012
I painted with clear outdoor polyurethane, I enjoy the pretty wood. I'm not sure how it compares as far as lasting.
Comment by Anonymous Sat Apr 28 08:48:49 2012
That does sound very elegant! I was wondering about the toxicity, but a quick google search doesn't show any beekeepers having problems with it (and does show quite a few trying it).
Comment by anna Sat Apr 28 20:34:20 2012
In my seminar for new beekeepers, they said to paint the hive boxes with boiled linseed oil. I didn't realize until now that they were only referring to the outside of the boxes. Did I ruin my hive boxes by painting the inside with boiled linseed oil?
Comment by Steve M Mon Feb 11 19:40:17 2013
Steve --- From what I understand, boiled linseed oil is a bad idea all around because of the chemicals. On the outside it might not be terrible, but the inside does sound pretty bad.
Comment by anna Mon Feb 11 20:07:34 2013
Bare wood should always be painted first with a primer if you can. It seals the wood so the paint can adhere. Without primer, your paint, even with multiple coats, will be more likely to flake off.
Comment by Tom Borg Wed May 21 18:29:48 2014
I'm likin marine varnish, or polyurothane it is well established to hold up to UV and moisture
Comment by union13 Mon Mar 30 18:52:41 2015

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