How to kill bees with soapy water

I want to address this issue because lots of non-beekeepers land on this site looking for ways to kill bees without using pesticides. This is good news because it shows that people are becoming aware of the dangers of pesticides to our environment, children, and pets. But killing a swarm of bees with soap is not a walk in the park.

If you have stinging insects you need to get rid of, I strongly recommend you call a local beekeeper or a company that gathers wasps for medical purposes. These people will generally come out to your home for free. Once there, they will be able to identify the type of insect you have and either collect it or tell you what needs to be done. If a nest is firmly established in your walls, removing it may be a time-consuming and expensive undertaking. In any case, you will know a lot more after a bug person takes a look.

If the nest is small and outside your home, you can try to kill it yourself with a solution of soapy water (one part liquid dish soap to four parts water) in a plastic spray bottle or garden sprayer. Before you start you need to sequester your family and pets in a safe place and cover yourself from head to toe with protective clothing. Also, be sure no neighbors or pedestrians are nearby.

Soap kills insects because it is a surfactant—a substance that essentially makes water wetter. If you take a leaf and spray it with plain water, the water forms little round droplets. If you spray the same leaf with soapy water, the water flattens out into a thin layer. The wax of the leaf is a fatty substance much like the wax on the outside of an insect or the grease on your dishes—normally water cannot penetrate it. But add soap to the water and suddenly the water and the wax (or grease) form an attraction for each other.

In effect, the molecules of water—with the help of the soap—surround the fatty molecules. In the case of your dishes, molecules of fat surrounded by the soapy water are released from the dish and go down the drain. On the leaf or insect, the molecules of wax surrounded by soapy water allow more water to freely enter the insect’s body. Essentially, it drowns.

The homeowner who tries this method must be aware of several things:

Remember that pollinators of many types are endangered, so it’s best to have someone look at a nest before destroying it. If you know nothing of bees and wasps, stay clear of them until someone can identify them. If you live in areas with Africanized honey bees you don’t want to go near a swarm—even to kill it—until someone in the know has assessed the danger.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

The waxy surface of leaves is similar to the protective surface of insects. Soap can break down these layers and make them permeable to water. Flickr photo by Brett Jordan.
The waxy surface of leaves is similar to the protective surface of insects. Soap can break down these layers and make them permeable to water. Flickr photo by Brett Jordan.

Comments

Gretchen
Reply

This is not a “how to kill” comment, but rather a “how to gently repel” question. I’ve been wanting to ask it, but didn’t know where…

Lucky me, a new beekeeper that has developed an allergy to honey bees. I’ve spent the winter doing venom shots, and am now up to the equivalent of 2-3 stings per shot with no reaction. This goes a long way to reassure me and my continuance of beekeeping. We have about 2 acres that are open, and when the bees are active, they visit every corner of my life (the garden, front porch, kitchen, swing set, lawn chairs, etc). This is great, and I love it, but I don’t love the way they dive-bomb my bright red hair and face when there’s little to eat out there (early spring, late summer, fall, etc). I was thinking about a natural repellent I could wear or put on my sun hat that might make them say, “gee, I’d rather fly over there.” Something I also could dab on my nearly-3 year old daughter, who is a bit of a bee-whisperer herself.

Any suggestions?

Rusty
Reply

So, Gretchen, when you say you developed an allergy, do you mean you didn’t have one previously? I always wondered about that because I hear people say “developed” but I always believed you were allergic or not. But I worry about my husband who is allergic to lots of things, has had anaphylactic shock, but weathers honey bee stings just fine, at least so far. But one year I dropped a super and got 23 stings on my ankle. If that happened to him I’d be pretty worried.

As to your question — they say meat repels honey bees, but if you hung a piece of roast beef around your neck, the wasps and hornets would be after you instead. It seems to me that I read about a bee repellant, but I just can’t recall where or what. It’s such a good idea. Most things that repel them, like butyric acid, you wouldn’t want to be around. There are a bunch of so-called insect repellants available, but most contain lemongrass which apparently repels lots of six-legged creatures but attracts honey bees. Find the answer and you will probably make your millions.

I don’t think they are attracted to your red hair because they can’t see red, but perhaps it is a shampoo or soap you are using. I’ll keep alert for an answer, but I just don’t have one at the moment. Sorry.

Jason
Reply

Allergies do actually develop. You have to have an initial exposure to something before you develop an allergy to it. Upon first exposure your body releases antibodies to the substance which then attach to your mast cells. In subsequent exposure, your mast cells recognize this and produce histamines, and a bunch of other stuff which causes the symptoms of an allergic reaction. So technically, you can only have a reaction to something you’ve been previously exposed to, though my guess is that if a substance stays in your system for a bit it may be able to trigger a reaction on your first exposure. I think some people are more prone to allergic reactions than others, but it is not terribly uncommon to suddenly have an allergic reaction to something that you have been exposed to many times before with no issue.

Gretchen
Reply

Maybe they are just attracted to my sweet personality. Or maybe they hate my deodorant. At least I can stop blaming my hair…

I say “developed” because I have been stung off and on throughout my life, including my first few months as a beekeeper, with no problem. Then I got stung on my face and neck (bees got stuck in my hair after I took off my gear — I now assess myself for hitchhikers with a mirror before taking anything off), and developed hives on my torso. Lab work revealed I was definitely in the range of honey bee allergy. Perhaps I was borderline before, and the facial sting sent me over (exact same thing happened to a friend whose wife is a beekeeper). I was later stung on the knee (kneeled on a poor gal), took antihistamine right away, and had a normal reaction.

One repellant I read about is tea tree oil with benzaldehyde (which is in many cosmetics, but also carries an occupational hazard warning, so don’t know about that…). I will experiment with just tea tree oil to start. I also thought of the almondine scent of Fishers Bee Quick (they won’t reveal their ingredients). I will let you know if I seem to have success, and you tell me if you hear of anything. I think for someone like your husband, this type of gentle repellent would be ideal.

Rusty
Reply

Gretchen,

I frequently add tea tree oil to my sugar patties to attract the bees to it and they love it. It is one of the oils I read about several years ago and then did some experiments with.

W.T. Self
Reply

I sometimes use drier sheets [ fabric softner ]. I place one in my hat and bees seem to avoid me.

Rusty
Reply

I can see where that might work. I know fabric softener sheets keep me away.

David
Reply

When trying to split a hive of bees, how is the best way to collect them (NOT KILLING THEM)? I saw a show some time back where a guy was gathering wild bees to put in a hive (box). He sprayed them with soapy water so they could not fly away, but NOT to kill them. Any suggestions???

David in SC

Rusty
Reply

David,

Soap is a surfactant that breaks down oils and fats into fine particles and reduces the surface tension of water (which is why it cleans grease off of dishes and dirt from your clothes). A thin layer of soap causes water to be absorbed through the bee’s exoskeleton and, essentially, it drowns. I’ve never heard of a soapy water spray that prevented them from flying but didn’t kill them. Perhaps it was just a really weak solution that almost killed them? I don’t know.

But here’s the important point. Splitting a hive will not cause the bees to fly away. When you split a hive of bees, all the foragers will return to their original hive. All the nurse bees (the bees that have never been outside the hive) will remain with the brood they are caring for. When you are in the process of splitting the hive, it may look like pandemonium, but it will all sort itself out in a few hours and no bees will have flown away.

If you are doing what you say–splitting a hive–you have no need to collect the bees; all the bees you see in the air will go back to the parent hive (assuming you haven’t moved the parent hive) and the brood and nurse bees you split from the parent hive will stay with the split.

LINDA
Reply

Try a bottle of tree oil from Wal-greens. It is about 8 dollars. Most insects cannot stand tree oil, so take a cotton ball and dip it with the tree oil and wipe the cotton ball in the place you don’t want insects to be.

valdemar
Reply

gostaria de saber como e que eu faço para espantar umas abelhinhas que faz colmeia pequenas no meu muro do quintal.

Rusty
Reply

If you think they are honey bees, call a local beekeeper and ask him to come to your place and take them away. If they are wasps, you can kill them with soapy water but be careful because it will make them mad. Can you send a photo? Maybe I can tell you what they are. Send to [email protected].

Sheila Retherford
Reply

I’ve just been driven into my house by guard bees from one of my hives. Sunny day, 60 degree weather, flowers blooming here in Eatonville, but these bees started stinging my gloves the instant I opened the hive after lightly smoking them. Each time I lifted a frame to check the brood pattern and look for swarm cells, about 10 bees would lift up and start buzzing my face mask.

Eventually, I wound up surrounded by a cloud of bees and my dogs even ran for the house when the bees went after them. I have 5 hives, been doing this for 4 years, this is a surviving hive queened with Olympic apiary Russian hybrid last summer. I’m ready to get out the soap suds!! So far, I decided to break the hive down, 3 medium boxes to 1 box each, and go back another day to look for the queen, planning regicide. Any other suggestions?

Thanks,
Sheila

Rusty
Reply

Sheila,

I think re-queening is your best bet. I find that bees are usually fairly docile this time of year, so a hot hive is probably an anomaly. Of course, it may already be queenless . . . maybe that is the problem.

Jen
Reply

Hi Rusty,
I just stumbled across your blog/website. With all of the news about colony collapse and bees dying off or disappearing why would you suggest killing bees and not deterring them? The end of your article is the best part and would really help people understand the importance of pollinators and not killing them.

Jen

Rusty
Reply

Jen,

How to kill bees is the number one question directed to my website. Since pesticides cause far-reaching and long-lasting damage to the environment, to health, and to countless pollinators including bees, I’m elated to have people kill them with soap rather than pesticides. The people who are seeking this information are going to kill them anyway, so I’d rather they kill them without harming the rest of the environment in the process.

My website is full of information on why bees should not be killed; if these people are interested they will read about it, otherwise I can’t force them to. In the end, soap is the best answer.

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