How To Safely Keep Bees During Fire Season

Firefighters trying to put out a wildfire that is close to beehives

Wildfires are an unwanted by-product of hot, dry weather. Combine these conditions with high winds, and you have a recipe for uncontrollable fires.

This guide looks at beekeeping best practices during the fire season and what to do if fires are in your area.

What should I do if forest fires are in my area?

If fires are in your area, always listen to the advice of your local fire authorities. Never take risks to save hives, as they are replaceable.

If it is safe to visit your hives, then follow these steps:

  1. Transfer your hives to a safer location if the bee yard is in danger of going up in flames.
  2. Before and after the fire passes, feed the colony sugar water. Fire damage, ash, and poor air quality could make foraging a challenge. Keep feeding the bees until the flowers return.
  3. If your bee yards local foraging zone has been decimated by fire, consider temporarily moving the hives to a better location.
  4. Try to minimize hive inspections during and after nearby forest fires.
A row of hives next to burnt trees and ash from a forest fire

Is smoke from a wildfire bad for bee health?

​There are mixed opinions on how smoke pollutants affect bees. Studies at the University of Southampton and Penn State University have found that air pollution from fire reduces a bee’s ability to forage.

In contrast, studies like this one conclude that forest fires help bees. Bee colonies exist in more significant numbers where moderate to severe wildfires impact the landscape.

The OSU Forest Animal Ecology Lab has surveyed areas 4-5 years after a severe fire. They discovered a habitat rich in varied bee species and an abundance of bees.

As experienced beekeepers, we have witnessed firsthand the profound impact smoke pollution can have on honey bees, particularly their ability to forage. Heavy smoke distorts the pattern of polarized light in the sky, which bees use as a compass.

However, the long-term effects of forest fires are often positive for the local habitat. The renewal of vegetation post-fire often leads to an explosion of new growth, providing pollinators with a bounty of foraging opportunity. This provides a significant boost for honey production.

Fires also clear dense bush, making it easier for bees to access a broader range of flora.

Related reading:

One beehive in a firebreak with smoke and forest in the background

Tips for using a bee smoker during dry summer weather

Using a bee smoker during dry summer weather requires extra caution due to the increased risk of wildfires. Here are some tips for using one safely in fire-prone areas:

Important: Never use a smoker when there are fire bans or the local authorities have deemed it unsafe.

  • Check the smoker: A well-maintained smoker without holes or other problems will reduce the chance of embers escaping.
  • Stay alert: Be mindful of the risk of embers escaping from the smoker. Avoid using the tool near flammable materials or dry vegetation.
  • Keep informed: Stay updated with the latest local fire conditions and avoid using a smoker if strong winds are expected.
  • Extinguish properly: After inspecting the hive, extinguish the smoker by plugging the outlet nozzle with wet material. Place it in a fire-proof container for added safety.
  • Clear foliage: Rake away pine needles and dry brush within five feet of hives.
  • Take care traveling: Always extinguish the smoker first if traveling between hives.
  • Wet the area: Use a sprayer or hose to dampen the ground near the hive. Keep a water source or extinguisher close by for emergencies.

Can I inspect hives without a smoker?

When fire restrictions are in place, it is often during nectar dearth, so inspections aren’t advisable.

If you must visit bees, consider using a spray bottle with sugar water and lemongrass oil or invest in liquid smoke.

These alternatives may not work as well as smoke, so wear full protective wear or wait until the fire ban ends. 

How can beekeepers help hives in fire-prone areas?

Ensuring apiary survival during a wildfire can be challenging, but some strategic landscaping practices can help. Here are some practical tips:

Create defensible space

Establish an area around the hives where flammable vegetation is cleared to slow the spread of fire. In the case of a beehive, try to clear 30 feet in all directions.

Use fire-resistant plants

Plants like lemonade berry, manzanita, Catalina cherry, yucca, and buckwheat may help to slow an advancing fire.

Make a firebreak

Firebreaks are gaps in vegetation and combustible material that slow wildfire. These breaks could be a water feature, but clearing a wide dirt path will also help.

Maintain nearby land

Regularly prune trees and shrubs and rake up dead plant material to reduce fuel for a fire. Keep tree branches trimmed so they don’t hang over the hive.

Emergency plan

Have an emergency plan for your bees, including an evacuation strategy. Sometimes, the best way to protect your bees is to move them to a safer location.

These tips can reduce risk, but nothing will eliminate it. It’s essential to stay updated about fire danger in your area and follow evacuation orders issued by your local authorities.

Three wooden hives with tinder-dry countryside in the background

Interesting research

Predicted fates of ground-nesting bees in soil heated by wildfire: Thermal tolerances of life stages and a survey of nesting depths.

James H. Cane, John L. Neff. Link to research>

Our summary:

This research investigates the impact of wildfires on ground-nesting bee species. Experiments tested heat tolerance across various bee life stages (eggs, larvae, pupae, and pre-emergent adults), revealing all stages could survive temperatures up to 45°C for 27 minutes but none at 54°C for 9 minutes.

Longer exposure to near-lethal temperatures resulted in increased mortality. The study found that 9% of shallow-nesting mining bees, especially the ground-nesting megachilids, are likely to die from soil heating by wildfire.

The research indicates that while wood and twig-nesting bees may be killed in a fire, many mining bees will likely survive.

Wildfires Influence Abundance, Diversity, and Intraspecific and Interspecific Trait Variation of Native Bees and Flowering Plants Across Burned and Unburned Landscapes. Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution.

Burkle Laura A., Simanonok Michael P., Durney J. Simone, Myers Jonathan A., Belote R. Travis. Link to research>

Our summary:

A study in Montana, USA, found that wildfires, including severe ones, generally increased the density, diversity, and success of native bees and their food sources (flowers).

Burned areas provided more diverse nesting resources for bees than areas free from fire damage. While there was no significant difference in bee size-related traits between the two areas, wildfires influenced trait variation within and between species of bees and plants.

High-severity wildfire limits available floral pollen quality and bumble bee nutrition compared to mixed-severity burns.

Michael P. Simanonok & Laura A. Burkle. Link to research>

Our summary:

This study investigated the impact of high-severity wildfires on bumble bees and pollen quality in the Northern Rockies of the U.S.

The research found that areas with mixed severity burns had higher-quality pollen. These areas also had better bee nutrition, measured by nitrogen content, than high-severity burns.

Floral composition was a significant factor influencing these results. Over time, the nutrition content in bees increased, regardless of the fire severity.

The study implies that while wildfires are necessary for ecosystem dynamics, high-severity fires can negatively affect bumble bees and potentially other pollen-dependent organisms by reducing pollen quality and nutrition.

Responses from bees, butterflies, and ground beetles to different fire and site characteristics: A global meta-analysis.

Stephen C. Mason, Vaughn Shirey, Lauren C. Ponisio, Jon K. Gelhaus. Link to research>

Our summary:

A meta-analysis of 100 studies examined the impact of fire on bees, butterflies, and ground beetles.

The study found that bee diversity and abundance significantly increased after fires and combined fire-management treatments. However, fires had no significant effect on butterflies and ground beetles.

None of the examined fire and site characteristics decreased the diversity of these insects.

These findings suggest the need to better understand fire mechanisms to improve conservation efforts, particularly as only 7% of the studied works quantified fire severity.

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