Wooden bee boxes are a long-term investment that, if properly prepared and cared for — including painting or finishing — should last for many years. It’s tempting to deploy unpainted hives during the big push to get bee equipment ready for the season. That works, but doing so shaves many years off their service life: The box joints may warp and cracks may develop in the sides due to constant weathering. Even with a lot of rehab to restore them, these boxes may never be as nice as if they had been protected from the start. Explore our advice for the best paint for bee boxes, how to keep your bees safe during the painting process, and how to maintain your painted woodenware.
The best paint for your bee boxes and woodenware is low VOC water-based exterior latex paint. VOCs — the chemicals that evaporate, or off-gas, as the paint dries — can have negative effects on bees’ health. Paint cans disclose VOCs on the label, measured in grams per liter: Under 100 is ideal, but under 50 is better. If you choose to stain your equipment, rather than paint, look for a low VOC, water-based stain or clear coat.
Generally, white or light colors keep hives cooler, which is ideal for locations with hot summers or warm weather year-round, while darker colors absorb the sun's warmth — helpful in locations with cold winters. Some beekeepers want their hives to blend into the surroundings, so they choose paint colors for camouflage, such as greens or browns.
Many beekeepers choose hive paint colors by buying “Oops” paints that were mistinted at the paint store, often available at a substantial discount. But don’t be tempted to throw money away on interior paint, even deeply discounted interior paint: The time and work involved in painting bee boxes warrant good quality exterior paints that won’t fail prematurely.
BeeMax and Lyson polystyrene hives should also be painted to protect them from UV degradation. Use ONLY latex paints for both primer and top coat when painting polystyrene beehives.
For best results, seal the exposed end grain of the box joint fingers, the handholds, the edges of the box, and any knots using one or two coats of a good exterior sealer. Use Zinsser 1-2-3 BIN or brush on a coat of exterior wood glue — such as Titebond II or III — over these vulnerable areas. Allow the application to dry thoroughly.
Coat the boxes with a good quality exterior primer. If you can find it, an oil (alkyd) exterior primer is best, even if you plan to use latex paint for the top coats. In some states, oil paints have been removed from the market for air-quality reasons, but an oil-based primer has superior stick-to-the-wood qualities. After priming your boxes, allow it to dry for 24 to 48 hours before painting.
Choose a good-quality exterior latex paint for your top coat. After the primer has dried, apply two coats of your selected paint, allowing ample drying time between coats. You can sand between coats if you wish — but it may not be necessary for bee boxes. For best results, if you do sand between coats, ensure all sawdust and debris has been cleaned away before applying a second coat.
Let the boxes dry and air out (off-gas) for as long as possible after painting, both to reduce the bees’ chemical exposure and to allow the paint to cure fully. Curing time is much longer than the dry-to-the-touch time or the recoat interval — at least 30 days.
Allowing the application time to cure completely is particularly important for bee equipment that is stacked up in a hive assembly. Uncured painted edges set on top of each other can stick together so forcefully that it becomes extremely difficult to separate boxes, resulting in damage when prying them apart. Nothing ruins a pleasant afternoon of bee work more than having a huge struggle to separate the boxes.
The best work-around for long curing times is to get your boxes painted early enough that they have a month to fully cure before you need them. You can leave the edges of the boxes unpainted, but that also leaves the edges unprotected if the boxes are not perfectly stacked up every time.
A handy way to have the whole box, including the edges, exposed for painting is to hang the boxes from a pipe supported between two saw horses or step ladders. Then, you can rotate the box around the pipe as you finish painting each side.
If you want to spray paint the boxes, do it with several of them stacked up together. You’ll need to separate them as soon as they are dry to the touch to prevent the paint from gluing them together as they finish drying, but it will save some time versus painting with a brush or roller. Even if you spray paint your boxes, hand paint the bases and outer covers.
If your boxes are getting a little dirty or stained, you can scrub them with a brush and warm water — but not soap — without taking them apart. If you clean your boxes during a rain storm, the bees inside will hardly notice. If a simple scrub won’t cut it and they need a more thorough cleaning, swap them out temporarily and do the work away from the hives.
You can touch up minor dings or flaking paint while the boxes are in use. Wear protective clothing, a bee suit if you wish, but at least gloves and a veil. Start your paint touch-up early in the morning or at sunset — when the bees are more likely to stay inside the hive — and work quickly. Brush away any debris, pollen, or cobwebs, then apply a thin coat of paint to affected areas and allow it to dry.
After about three years of use, your bee boxes may begin to show signs of wear. You can give them a good clean and touch-up dinged or flaking spots with fresh paint. Your bee boxes may need to be scraped and repainted after around five years of use. Plan ahead to complete this work when you’re able to swap your frames, either permanently or temporarily, to allow the repainted boxes to cure. After the repainted bee boxes have cured, you can swap your frames back or add a new colony to your bee yard.
Painted bee boxes significantly outlast their unpainted counterparts — saving your time and budget. Paint them properly following these instructions for the best results, and enjoy the look and extended lifespan your bee boxes offer. For more tips and tricks, explore our Beekeeping Guide.