Painting Hives (or Not) -and Why, and With What?

This question comes up a lot. Humans like things to look bright and tidy. Bees might not.

Natural beekeepers will not touch anything. Some will use a linseed oil rub, some go a step further and try an exterior weather sealer or a commercial stain (warnings should be applied here too as the chemicals in them are also nasty). Some (and this is probably crossing the fine line) will use milk paint, or go browsing into the low VOC paints. Others just buy the ‘oops’ paint colours from their local hardware store for $5 to $15 and have at it.


Other than decoration for human pleasure, the reasons cited for this are to:

a) increase the longevity of the hive body against the forces of nature (sounds like a tag line for a movie. The FORCES of NATURE -can you TAKE IT?). As in, weatherproofing.

b) If you own a lot of hives in the same yard, having different colours (save red) on a hive can help bees orient themselves and locate the correct hive (in addition to smell and navigational cues). Some people just decorate the hive entrances differently -with dots or stripes, etc but certain colours that bees favour might not be a bad idea.

Given how sub-acute pesticide poisoning can be detrimental to bees’ navigational abilities I am willing to help them out with a little colour.


ASIDE: I can relate. This happened to me when I tried to recall without GPS a friend’s house in the suburbs. I hate suburbs. Especially ones where every house is cookie-cutter identical (gah!), the driveways perfectly matched to every other one on the street, the house numbers are too small to see in twilight, all the trees are the same cultivar, etc. The only way I could recall which place I was supposed to go was because my friend happened to paint her garage door bright purple. Thank god for purple garages.


So. Back to bees and paint.

Colors look different when UV is a nautral part of the visible spectrum. Bees are attracted to our Purple, Violet, then Blue in that order. Red doesn’t work for them. White looks bluish-green to them. yellows, oranges are ok too.

we see 
bees see
add in UV
red black uv purple
orange yellow/green*
yellow yellow/green* uv purple
green green
blue blue uv violet
violet blue uv blue
purple blue
white blue green
black black

(Here is the link to the article where I lifted that table from:

The main thing to remember is the lighter the color, the cooler the hive, and the darker the color the warmer the hive.  Dark colors attract heat, light repels.  The color of paint doesn’t really doesn’t matter but does depend on where you live in the world. In Ontario, we have hot summers and cold winters. Bugger. Since I wrap my hives in winter the colour does not matter then, so I will deal with our 35C summer temperatures -plus humidity given lake Ontario effect- and keep my pain medium-to-light hued.


My hives are looking a little more dingy than I want to admit. It is time to clean them, so after processing out all the old wax (another post) and bleaching the frames (another post) to kill all the mold, wax moth eggs, etc I have come to the exterior hive box. Hmm.

I will cave on this one. My inner fashionista insists they look good. Score one for brainwashing, lynch me now, oh naturalists. I know. But at least I am keeping it exterior, I got the low VOCs and I will have time to let some of this stuff off-gas before my bees arrive. Having done research on paints I thought I would share some of this with you:

-modern latex paints are, by themselves, much less toxic than paints of yore. The lead is out and some of the new low-VOC paints are quite environmentally friendly.

-However, these essentially “un-poison” paints become food for all sorts of organisms, especially fungi. As a result, virtually all modern latex paints are laced with fungicide.

YES. FUNGICIDE. (It is in your home, too.)

-commercially speaking, paint with no fungicides doesn’t exist because the paint won’t hold up without them.

-research has shown that fungicides (all or some? Which kinds? The kinds in paint? This is not stated) *can* cause sub-lethal damage to bees (at what concentrations? acutely? Chronically? Again, not enough info) and can work in combination with other pesticides (including in-hive acaricides) to produce toxic synergistic effects.

I will consider this a warning, but a warning akin to ‘don’t OD on aspirin and then wash it all down with a shot of vodka’. It may all be in the dose and timing. Or is that my wishful thinking, considering I have committed the sin of a $20 can of low VOC pain in ‘imperial plum?’ I don’t use in-hive chemicals and I take pains to avoid pesticide-heavy areas.

-Bee bodies merely rubbing on the dried paint can spread molecules of the fungicides throughout the hive

Now this claim I think I might argue. Paint comes off in flakes given the molecular binding, so the fungicides are trapped in it, not coming off like baby powder. However I would have to go find paint experts who literally documented it drying, then disintegrating. That sounds like govt-paid work to me…

However, this piece of advice is still sound: Why take the risk of exposing your bees to fungicide or eating it in your honey when it is so simple to avoid painting the inside of your hive?

Oh yes, do not paint the inside of your hive. Period.

Though some beekeepers (including Langstroth himself!) advised it… And while he did great things he didn’t know everything (like lead issues), nor did he have to deal with neo-nics or CCD. So I’ll take a pass on his interior decor ideas and keep the inside pristine for the bees to muck about with propolis.


Some more things about paint:

VOC = Volatile Organic Compounds. Take a wild guess as to what those are. Go on.
VOC numbers are stamped on the pail of paint, actually.  The federal US government has regulations on VOC content at no more than 250 grams per liter (g/l) for your flat paints and around 380 g/l for any other type (semi-glosses).
Semi-gloss or not? The ‘rougher’ paints (aka flat finish) will tend to attract more dirt and mildew than a regular satin paint with a smoother finish.  This will keep your hives cleaner and maintain their color longer. Wish I’d known that before I bought a flat finish. Oh well.
About those stains…if you do decide to go with a stain over regular paint, make sure it is a water based stain so it will not harm the bees.  Some wood preservatives can leach arsenic (just as pressure treated wood contains chromated copper arsenate). CCA is a pesticide.
There are some natural oil stains that have a low VOC rate at around 5.5 g/l and will darken the wood slightly but not make it overly dark that is sold by some beekeeping supply factories.  As with many stains, you would have to reapply these every 3-4 years in order to maintain the protective qualities.

As for the actual painting…all the usual rules apply, of course. You can use a brush or a roller. Paint only the outside and parts that do not touch.

A lot of new beekeepers will stack their hives to the brim and use a roller up and down until they are done painting.  After a few hours they come back to move the hives and they find out that the hives are stuck to one another. OOPS.
One way to prevent this is to put a spacer in between the hives like a washer or some pennies so that you can easily move them after painting.
Finally, a use for our old Canadian pennies. Rejoice!
Saw horses also work and get everything off the ground so you don’t strain your back.
There you have it. Hardly new or rare information, but it is put together to make you think.



The webmaster, and beekeeper. That is all.

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