Aggressive Bees in Strong Colonies
Dealing with aggressive bees is no fun. Hopefully, your colonies are gentle. Perhaps it is your first year as a beekeeper, or you may have a few seasons of experience under your belt. You feel that you are beginning to understand how to work your colonies. Keeping honey bees is not that bad after all. Then suddenly, those sweet girls change – where did these angry crazy bees come from?
When referring to the temperament of honey bee colonies, we look for certain traits. All bees can sting but some are more likely to do so than others.
And, even calm bee colonies will sting when provoked or under certain weather conditions.
Honey Bees are Defensive Not Aggressive
I’ve always been told that honey bees are not aggressive, as a rule. They are defensive.
That is true because they want to defend their hive. Most bees will not attack without being provoked.
However, 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.
It is common for beekeepers to have more problems with aggressive bees in late summer hives.
Hive Temperament Changes Over Time
First, its important to understand that the temperament of a honey bee colony can change at any time.
Changes in field conditions, disturbance by predators, lack of a queen and many other things affect the mind set of our honey bees. It’s just part of the beekeeper’s year.
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.
Defensive Beehives Can Be Dangerous
Because the temperament of your colony will change over time, hive placement is important.
This is why I tell new beekeepers to think carefully about where to put your beehive.
The entertaining, docile new hive sitting beside your back door in April, may become a monster in September.
Any colony can be provoked by conditions or activities that make them angry. But strong colonies often become more defensive as the season ends.
Why Do 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”.
Why does the behavior change so drastically when we are working our bees in the same fashion as before?
Of course, each hive is different but there are some common issues that cause aggressive bees in the later part of the season.
Causes for Aggressive Bees
- colonies are large
- the bees know the season is coming to an end
- varroa mites aggravate and stress colonies
- possible nectar dearth causes a lack of food
- other colonies are more likely to rob hives
- late season predators
- colony becomes queenless
- it’s hot and humid in many locations
Let’s look at each trigger and understand how they can affect our honey bee colonies’ behavior.
Large Bee 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.
Spring is a time of renewal and growth for the honey bee colony. Lots of fresh food becoming available and new babies developing in the comb.
By late season, colony growth has stopped and the large colony of older bees are very protective.
Winter is Coming and The Bees Know it
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.
This time of year is even hard on the drone honey bees. As the mating season draws to an end, the worker bees as not as quick to feed them as earlier in the year.
Food stores become even more precious than before. Drones will be expelled from the colony at some point in early Fall.
The characteristics of how bees reproduce has an effect on colony numbers. Colony populations ebb and flow with the season.
Varroa Mites Play A Role In Late Summer Hive Behavior
Of course, any hive that is unhealthy is prone to be cranky. In late Summer, the bee population starts to drop-as the queen lays fewer eggs.
During this same period, varroa mite reproduction grows. This leads to having more mites per bee and the unbalanced population results in unhealthy bees.
Nectar Dearth Stresses Even Strong Bee Colonies
Most regions will experience a nectar dearth at some time during early Fall. A dearth (lack of abundant nectar/pollen) may last for a few days or several weeks.
With cold weather approaching, a nectar dearth causes every insect to be in a frenzy to get the last sweet drop of food. My Dad always said that “Yellow Jackets go crazy in late Summer”.
Well, I’m not sure where Dad got that information – yellow jackets seem pretty crazy all season to me.
In fact, many of us beekeepers make our own Yellow Jacket Traps for the bee yard.
A lack of incoming food creates many problems for the honey bee hive. They are not the only ones who are hungry and desperate for food.
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.
Other Disturbances That Cause Aggressive Bees
Robbing activity could be included in this section as well. However, the disturbances that I am referring to involves another issue.
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.
Only his belly is a possible sting site and hives sitting on the ground don’t require the skunk to raise up and become vulnerable.
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.
Yes, she is the bee that 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.
Hot, Humid Weather Means Grumpy 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. Really hot weather – grumpy bees.
Dealing With Aggressive Bees in Late Summer Hives
We can easily see that many factors can affect the temperament of our honey bee colonies. This is a seasonal process for most hives and things will calm down once cool weather arrives.
But what is the considerate beekeeper to do until the bees calm down?
Feed your bees if they need it. You should not have to feed bees year-round.
But if conditions such as drought, late season swarms etc. have caused your colonies to be low on food stores. Feed them.
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. Be quick.
Hive Inspection Techniques
Promote calmness in the bee yard. Use your smoker and suit up when doing hive inspections or maybe even when feeding.
The smoker is the beekeepers friend and can be used to reduce bee deaths too.
Use a little extra smoke at this time of year, give it a minute or 2 to work before opening the hive. Wear your protective wear!
Choose the best weather days for hive inspections. When you need to inspection strong aggressive bees in late Summer, don’t choose a rainy overcast day. The older and more defensive workers will be home.
Instead, try to inspect your hive on a clear, nice day around late morning or midday. Hopefully, most of the older foragers will be out working.
Final Tips for Aggressive Beehives
If your colony is well fed and healthy and not being disturbed by predators, they many 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.