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Dealing With Aggressive Honey Bees
As a beekeeper gains experience in keeping honey bees, he/she learns to gage the mood of the hive. Hopefully, your colonies are usually gentle. Then suddenly, those sweet girls change and become angry and hard to manage. What happened? Why are your honey bees suddenly aggressive?
When referring to the temperament of honey bee colonies, we look for certain traits. Beekeepers enjoy bees that are easy to inspect and not too overprotective of the hive.
All bees can sting but some are more likely to do so than others. And, even the calmest honey bee colonies will sting when provoked.
Honey Bees are Defensive Not Aggressive
Honey bees are a rule as not aggressive-they are defensive. Most honey bees will not attack unless they feel threatened or feel a need to defend their hive.
However, terminology aside – I don’t see any reason to “split hairs”, the fact is that angry stinging bees are no fun – no matter what you want to call them.
Hive inspections are more difficult with 50 angry bees bounding off the front of your veil. And, you do not want to get chased away every time you are within 50 feet of a hive.
Hive Temperament Changes Over Time
First, its important to understand that the temperament of a honey bee colony can change at any time. There are many conditions that affect the level of aggression in your honey bees.
Some of the factors involved in the level of defensiveness of a hive can be controlled by the beekeeper – some can not.
This is why finding the best location for your beehive is so important. Avoid placing hives too close to your living space.
The entertaining, docile new hive sitting beside your back door in April, may seem to be a monster in September.
Reasons Honey Bees Become Aggressive
- hot humid weather causes cranky bees
- bees are more aggressive during a dearth
- a queenless hive results in fussy bees
- bad queen genetics
- colonies with large populations are more difficult
- aggressiveness a sign of bee robbing
- predators bothering the hive
- not using a bee smoker properly
- clumsy beekeeper
- high varroa mite levels
- end of the season defensiveness in bee colonies
- alarm pheromones on your bee suit
- Africanization of your beehive
Hot Weather Means Cranky Bees
The sultry days of late summer do nothing to improve the mood of my honey bees. I can’t really blame them. The hot, humid “air you can wear” doesn’t make me very happy either.
This is an important time of year as the worker are trying to ripen honey and keep the hive cool. Also, colonies are often large this time of year and that makes the work even harder. Really hot weather – grumpy bees.
Nectar Dearth Stresses Bee Colonies
Most regions will experience a nectar dearth at some time during the warm months. A dearth (lack of abundant nectar/pollen) may last for a few days or several weeks.
This lack of incoming food creates stress in the colony. The queen bee may stop laying eggs and if the food shortage continues – drone bees may be evicted to save on resources.
Queenless Hives are Know to Be Cranky
If you have been a beekeeper for any length of time, you know the importance of the queen bee to a colony.
The queen honey bee lays all the fertile eggs for the colony but she serves another important function. The queen bee emits pheromones (chemical messengers) that hold the bees together as a family and help regulate hive functions.
When those pheromones are missing, nervous, aggressive bees may be the result. The colony is in a frantic struggle to replace their queen.
Mean Queens Rear Aggressive Honey Bees
Some lines of bees are more defensive than others. This is true in any type of livestock and honey bees are no exception.
Large Colonies Tend to Be More Aggressive
There will be exceptions of course but large bee colonies tend to be more defensive/aggressive than small colonies.
That sweet little starter hive with 10,000 bees in the Spring is now 40-60,000 strong. By late season, colony growth has stopped and the large colony of older bees are very protective.
Robbing Causes Aggressive Bee Behavior
Every sweet loving insect out there wants to get a taste of the honey stored in the bee hive. Bumblebees, Hornet, Wasps and even other honey bees will try to gain entrance and steal some sweetness.
Of course, our bees cant stand by and let their winter survival food be taken. So they fight, often to the death to evict the intruders.
As the robbing (fighting) begins at the bee hive entrance, alarm pheromone is released. This alarm notifies the rest of the worker bees of a threat and is a call to action. All stingers on deck.
Unfortunately, while you may not be a robber – bees that are being bothered by potential robbers get rather testy.
Predators Affect Temperament
Several animals can be predators of honey bee hives. When a bear attacks the hive, it is rather obvious. But smaller animals can cause bees to have a testy attitude too.
Skunks can be major predators of honey bee hives – especially hives that are set low on the ground. Each night the skunk stands in front of the hive and scratches.
When the guard bees come out to investigate, the skunk eats them. His thick fur protects him from stings. However, the bees may still be grumpy the next time you come near the hive.
Improper Use of Bee Smoker Angry Bees
Well, here we go again, assigning human feelings to the honey bees. However, not using a bee smoker correctly can cause bees to act angry.
Cool white smoke does not harm your bees. It distracts them from your inspection and helps mask any alarm pheromones.
Failure to use a bee smoker or using hot, black smoke creates an aggressive response in your beehive.
Rough Treatment During Hive Inspections Disturbs Bees
Staying calm while performing hive inspections can be difficult-especially for new beekeepers. However, it is important to avoid quick movements and banging hive components together.
The fast hand movements and vibrations can cause the honey bee colony to become defensive and go into attack mode.
Varroa Mites Play A Role In Hive Behavior
Of course, any hive that is unhealthy is prone to be cranky. When the the level of varroa mite infestation is high, the bee colony suffers.
This leads to having more mites per bee and the unbalanced population results in unhealthy bees.
Late Season Bees Become Aggressive
The transition period from late Summer to early Fall, is the most common period for our bees to “get an attitude”. The bee colony knows that Winter is coming. They sense the end of the foraging season.
After working hard all Summer to store food, giving it up without a fight is not an option. Winter survival depends on sufficient food stores.
Food stores become even more precious than before. Drones will be expelled from the colony at some point in early Fall.
Alarm Pheromones on Bee Suit Trigger a Response
Okay, do you stink? Well, I mean does your beekeeping suit stink? If your suit or gloves has alarm pheromones from previous stings this may trigger an aggressive honey bee response.
It is not only honey bee alarm pheromones to be concerned about. Bees are very sensitive to odors. Sweat or other strong smells can have a negative effect on the attitude of your hive.
Wash your bee suit occasionally. And as I always tell the students in my online beekeeping class – “don’t go to the bee yard smelling like a bear. ” Strong smells and honey bees are not a good combination.
Africanized Honey Bees Are More Aggressive
Africanized Honey Bees are present in many parts of the Southern US. Bees with these genetics are much more defensive than other types of honey bees.
Confirmation of African genetics requires the use of a lab, you can not identify them with the naked eye.
Dealing With Aggressive Honey Bees
We can easily see that many factors can affect the temperament or aggressiveness of our honey bee colonies.
Some of the issues are seasonal and things will calm down once cool weather arrives. But what is the considerate beekeeper to do until the bees calm down?
Choose the best times to inspect your colonies when the weather is nice. Use your smoker with cool white smoke and be gentle as you move boxes and frames around.
Feed your bees if they need it. You should not have to feed bees year-round but in times when nectar is lacking this can be a life saver.
Control mite levels in your colonies. Healthy bee colonies are much more likely to be happy bees. Sick, struggling colonies have a sense of desperation that can manifest in defensiveness.
You can help your hives prevent robbing. Reduce the size of your hive entrances, this makes the colony easier to defend. Avoid spilling sugar water on or near the hive, it will attract robbers.
Don’t throw scrap pieces of burr comb down in the bee yard it too will attract robbers and skunks. And don’t keep the hive open too long during inspections.
It is a common practice to replace the queen in a hive that is constantly aggressive. The odds are that the next queen will produce a calmer bee.
To increase the odds of being successful, you may choose a breed of bee that is know to be easier to work with. But don’t be too quick to blame your queen, especially late in the season.
Final Tips for Aggressive Beehives
If your colony is well fed and healthy and not being disturbed by predators, they may just be experiencing the end of the season defensiveness.
Honey bee colony temperaments do change over the season. It is cyclic and will return to normal sooner or later. Take extra precautions during feeding and inspections.
However, if a colony is extra defensive or aggressive all the time – you should consider giving them a different queen and hope that her genetics will produce a calmer bee.