What makes honey bees aggressive?

You’ve managed your honey bee colonies all spring and summer with no problem. Now and then an aggressive guard warned you off, but in general the bees were docile.

All of a sudden, however, the bees are angry. They fly at you. They form a dark cloud above their hive. They bury themselves in your pet’s fur. What gives?

Many aspects of a honey bee colony are cyclic in nature, and aggression is no exception. Honey bees have the ability to be aggressive at any time, but certain things set them off. In the late summer and early fall, more of these conditions exist.

Here are some of the factors that make for aggressive honey bees:

  • Queenlessness is frequently a cause of feisty bees. The bad behavior usually stops as soon as the colony or the beekeeper replaces the queen.
  • A shortage of nectar-producing flowers is called a nectar dearth. The bees can’t find nectar so they often try to steal it from other hives. This begins an aggressive behavior known as robbing.
  • Not only are robbing bees aggressive, but the bees being robbed become aggressive defenders of their stores. This often results in a cloud of bees around a hive, especially in the fall.
  • Look carefully. If robbing is going on, you will see bees fighting with each other at the hive entrance. The ground in front of the hive may be littered with dead honey bees.
  • The fighting bees release an alarm pheromone—an odor that warns other bees of the danger. The alarm pheromone makes other honey bees aggressive—more fighting means more pheromone is released which means more bees join the fray. The situation can escalate quickly.
  • Once the alarm pheromone has aroused the bees, you and your pets and your neighbors are fair game as well.
  • The odor of dead bees and the scent of honey being robbed attract other predators. Before long, wasps and yellow jackets have arrived on the scene to collect both meat and honey. This means more fighting and more alarm pheromone. What a mess.
  • Honey bees and wasps are not the only creatures preparing for winter. Colonies in the fall may be attacked by raccoons, opossums, or skunks. Regular visits by any creature—including a beekeeper—may make honey bees more aggressive.
  • Rainy weather, especially when it comes with heat and high humidity, makes bees cranky as well. During the “dog days of summer” no amount of fanning helps evaporate the nectar or cool the hive.

Of course, other factors can produce an aggressive hive. If the queen was superseded by a queen with more aggressive or Africanized genes, that could be the source of the problem. This is unlikely, however. More often than not aggressive behavior is merely a part of the cyclic nature of honey bee colonies.

Rusty

Comments

Ron
Reply

Thanks for this tread. We never had a problem with aggressive honey bees until recently.

We live in Northern California and have a house that belongs to our family that is vacant. It has a long driveway lined on one side with old olive trees. Two of the trees have wild hives in the trunks that have been there for years. We often walk down the driveway and sometimes watch the bees and they have never been aggressive.

We like honey bees and don’t want to destroy them but couldn’t find any local beekeepers to ask if they wanted them. I did look online and learned that it’s hard to get them out of tree trunks anyway.

We decided to just leave them alone since they never bothered us. However the last two days when I walk down the driveway past them one of them at least one of them acts very aggressive and chases me quite a ways trying to get into my hair. This only happened one other time a few weeks ago.

It sounds like since this is later in summer (although it doesn’t get cold here until late Oct of Nov) could be the reason for aggressiveness. I hope it does stop soon because I would hate to have them destroyed. We need to use the driveway almost daily.

Ron

Rusty
Reply

Ron,

I hope you don’t have to destroy them. This type of behavior happens in late summer when the hot weather had depleted the supply of flowers with nectar. If it starts to rain enough to give you fall-flowering plants, the situation should ease up. Often things like goldenrod, asters, dandelions and similar blooms are enough to dispel their mood. Good luck with it. They sound like great colonies.

Loueezbeez
Reply

Hello! Great site, interesting thread.

I have created a problem for myself. Last night I prepared my two colonies to move them from my backyard in Winnipeg to a field of buckwheat seven miles out. My method is to split the colonies in two, with a cover on the brood chambers and a bottom board on the lower of the two supers and a cover on top, so I have four x two boxes. Then everything is stapled. This way I can lift them (I am not that big or strong) with one other person and also fit them into my hatchback. It’s klugy, but I can’t do it any other way and it’s worked for me for five years now; a hassle but do-able.

So here’s the thing: Last night, I pulled out five full frames from each colony (mistake #1) to lighten the load and then banged in the staples (mistake #2). At sundown (mistake #3).

I left the 2 x 5 pulled frames (including bees) in my backyard in boxes (no choice here) with covers on them and planned to take them out tomorrow when I reunite the upper and lower halves of each colony.

However one remainder box (still in my yard) is spitting mad at me now, and I can’t even pick my beans. I’m not too afraid to get in there and move them anyway, in my suit, but how long will this fury last? The parent colony out in the field isn’t much happier, but I need to reunite everyone asap. (and somewhere in there I have to start extracting 60 frames, cuz I have no empty ones!)

How long can/should I wait? The ones in my yard are of course queenless which doesn’t help. Keeping them here (on the down-low, by the way) is basically inviting them to go sting my unsuspecting neighbours. But I want them to calm down! Will they be like this forever, especially if I move them again? Any tips, tricks and suggestions would be very much appreciated

Thanks in advance for your advice,

Loueezbeez

Rusty
Reply

I don’t know how long they will stay feisty, but I would be careful about reuniting them with their original colonies. Bees realize they are queenless after just a few minutes, and putting them back together after being apart overnight is asking for trouble. I would use the newspaper method or some similar technique to protect your queens.

raymond
Reply

Just curious, I have spotted what I guess is a hive way in the top of a tree on my property. I can’t tell much other than seeing the bees flying around the top of the tree. (Im using binoculars) I am in Tn and the tree is along a river bank. What type of bees are they likely to be? Honey bees? Are there any other species in Tn that would nest high in a tree?

Rusty
Reply

Raymond,

It could be honey bees; it could also be wasps (yellowjackets) or hornets. The shape of the nest would be a good clue to their identity.

Joan EJ
Reply

I am a newbee…I have 2 hives….one is stronger than the other. I began feeding 2:1 sugar water a week ago in a quail feeder. Problem when I lift off the top board there are so many bees and I seem to be unable to easily lift out the feeder to add the new feeder without smashing bees. Should I be lifting off the deep first, then smoking or brushing the bees away to remove and add the new feeder? Now today there are so many bees aggressively flying around both hives and clustering at the 4 corners, front and back of deep containing the quail feeder. Could these be robbers or are the bees just aggressively mad at me?

Rusty
Reply

Joan,

If you can’t set the feeder in place, smoke the bees down first. Or just lower it very slowly until they move out of the way.

Bees at the corners of the super containing the feeder definitely sounds like robbers. They follow the scent, and if the scent is wafting out of that box, that is where they will try to get in. I would be very careful when adding syrup and be sure to reduce your entrance until it’s about 3/4-inch so the robbers can’t get in as easily. Use a robbing screen if you have one.

Aram
Reply

What an amazingly popular topic. Come to think of it, I think I found your site researching this very same subject.

Joan EJ
Reply

Thank you for your response…..I put in the reducers and today there are thousands and thousands of bees bearding all around the one hive. Many have pollen and don’t seem to know where to go as the entrance is reduced to about 3/4 in….It is very hot and humid in PA today with storms predicted late and cool coming by Tuesday, The 2nd hive appears normal looking. I have seen bearding several times before but never like this….wish I could send you a pic…I don’t think robbing is going on…..should I leave the reducers in? I’m still a newbee. Thank you.

Rusty
Reply

Joan,

Take out the entrance reducer on the stronger hive, especially since you don’t see robbing there. On the weaker one, where you suspected robbing, leave the entrance reducer in place. Some bearding in hot and humid weather is normal, but the stronger hive shouldn’t have a problem with robbing in any case so you can just increase the entrance size.

Lora
Reply

Wow. This is my fourth year of beekeeping and my first year to experience the aggressive behavior. My new colony is Italian and really friendly, the colony I have from last year I think are African and really mean. I had one hive fall over onto the the other hive and while trying to right the boxes bees got under my veil and needless to say had many stings on my face and head. That was on Friday and Sunday while trying to grill they were still really aggressive. My husband wants the bees to be gone, and now I’m worried about taking the honey this fall. Is there a better time to take the honey? What are the ideal condition for taking fall honey?

Rusty
Reply

Lora,

If you live in an area with Africanized bees, you can send them in to a state agency and have them checked. But if they are just aggressive due to the summer nectar dearth, they will soon get over it. This is traditionally honey harvesting time, but you can wait until the weather gets colder if it would make you more comfortable. Check your suit before you start, smoke them good, and them move the frames of honey away from the hives as soon as possible.

NORMA
Reply

A beehive formed in a bird box that we have in a tree in our backyard last year and again this year. We do not mind having them there, about 20 ft from our house although they swarm at times and we just keep away. Since I am not a beekeeper I wonder if I should call someone to do something about the hive, or should I just leave it alone. I have many flowers in my patio, and in Miami many bloom all year long. Your advice is appreciated.

Rusty
Reply

Norma,

I can’t tell what kind of bees they are—or if they are bees—from your description. How big is the bird box? Unless it is huge, the inhabitants are probably bumble bees, not honey bees. If you can live with them, why not? They like the flowers, no doubt, and if you plants lots of flowers you can expect lots of bees.

Brynn
Reply

Hi. I found your awesome website because I am curious why one of my hives is completely docile and the other nothing short of vicious, chasing me for a distance if I work with it.

The docile hive was a split off the aggressive one early in the year.

I realize now in fall lack of nectar can be a problem, but am struggling to understand why two related hives could behave so differently. Even in mid summer when I took some honey out they were like this. It’s so extreme that I almost feel like getting rid of the one hive.

Any ideas? Thanks for your time!

Rusty
Reply

Brynn,

Even though they are related, the queens mated with different drones, so you can get significant genetic variability. If they are like this all the time, and not just in the autumn, I recommend ordering a new queen to replace the one in the temperamental hive. No sense getting rid of the whole thing; as the old bees die and the new ones become numerous, the overall colony behavior should change.

Brynn
Reply

Thanks so much for the reply, Rusty. Yup they are still aggressive, and if still like this in spring I will consider a new queen. I never thought of the fact they have different fathers. So much to learn!

Keep telling myself to be brave and calm, but the thought of opening that hive and even finding the queen freaks me out. The other hive I’d face with bare hands.

Thanks again

Brynn
Reply

Just came across this thread again and thought I’d add that this aggressive hive died over the winter when a raccoon knocked it over during a really cold spell while I wasn’t home. Feel sad for bees, but kind of embarrassing to say, I’m kind of relieved!

Kathi
Reply

I am a newbie and my hive has always been very calm and gentle. This last week I can’t get near it without them trying to sting me. I want to do a hive inspection but they want no part of this. The one frame I was able to pull had capped brood and honey. It is a nice warm day today and I thought they would be in a better mood. I tried on Sunday but they were agitated that day also. I don’t see any signs of robbing. I see bees coming in with pollen. Any thoughts or suggestions would be appreciated. Thanks.

Rusty
Reply

Kathi,

I don’t know where you are writing from, but you are probably in a nectar dearth due to warm and/or dry weather. They will calm down when fall flowers become available or when it cools down. This is a common late summer/early fall behavior.

Jordan
Reply

So I am at a community garden near my house and there are at least 7 bee boxes that are close by, maybe like 20 feet away from our plot. It was weird; we were working on our plot all morning and then around 11 this morning was when they started getting into our hair, and then kept landing on our faces and basically seeming like they would just attach themselves on our faces, no where else on our body. We would hit them off then they’d just keep coming back and then were like swarming my dog.

We ended up killing like 15 just because they were harassing us. It’s just weird cause we have been here before and this has never been as big as a issue. The started after us after we were laying down horse manure, I am not sure if there is anything that triggers bee in that. But there were 3 other gardeners out and our area was the only one being attacked. And one of the boys got stung right on his face under his eye. Kinda scared me. So what causes that kind of behavior and why do they keep going into hair?

Rusty
Reply

Jordan,

I’m guessing here, but I think the smell of the manure warned them that danger was nearby. Bees have evolved to be wary of large and furry animals like bears, and they will harass those animals to try to get them to go away. Probably the smell of the manure combined with your family’s hair led the bees to believe you were something that needed to be chased away. As the smell of the manure abates, I’m sure their behavior will return to normal.

Aram
Reply

Ask the beekeeper to check if the hives are queenless due to swarm or other causes. This time of the year it is kind of unusual for aggressive behavior. I literally just fixed an aggressive hive that turned out have been queenless by adding a queen. They became a lot more on task of honey gathering, than protecting the queen cells against horse-predators. No guarantee that that’s the cause, but do ask the beekeeper.

Rusty
Reply

Aram,

Excellent point. Yes, Jordan, do ask the beekeeper to check his hives for queenlessness.

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