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

Tandy
Reply

I am a beekeeper in Southeastern Wisconsin. We have had an unusually mild winter and a very warm spring. I went out to check our hives today (we have 5) and they were extremely agitated. I was only able to check one frame of one hive before I was warned out of the area. I am happy to hear I am not the only one who is dealing with this unusual bee behavior, however, I don’t know what to do! The frame I saw had lots of brood, and looked healthy. My partner checked the hives a few weeks ago and they weren’t as mean to him. I guess we will give them some time and space and see what happens. It is a fenced area, but there are lots of people around. I am concerned about safety and right now I am not looking forward to an entire season with these bees! Thanks for this thread, I will keep checking to see what other folks are doing and keep you posted about the behavior of our bees.

Sergey
Reply

I am just curious if some global Earth physical conditions like sun activity (geomagnetic storm), moon phase (gravity waves), some seasonal (?) pollution (time for pesticides?) etc may affect bees behavior? Rusty’s idea about unusual warm weather did not explain my problems because we, actually, have relatively (for So Cal) cold spring.

S.Mc
Reply

Reading through this discussion has made me quite nervous. Beekeeping will be a new endeavor for me this year. I’ll be bringing two hives to my farm in about a month and was planning on placing them at the edge of my large yard. But these comments have made me fear for the safety of others, particularly friends with allergies and the old man that mows the grass. I have more remote areas that would work but I’d have to walk a long way to get there. Any advice?

Rusty
Reply

Most beehives most of the time create no problem for people, pets, or livestock in the area. In fact, you can go for years with no aggressive tenancies at all. Then one day, for no reason that you can see, your bees are suddenly buzzing you, stinging the local dog, or chasing the neighbor off his front yard. These episodes usually last from a few days to a few weeks, and things usually go back to normal afterwards.

However, those periods can be terrifying for those afraid of bees. In my opinion, it is best to keep them away from neighbors or from places where other people (the postman, meter reader, delivery person, door-to-door salesperson, children) may become intimidated.

You don’t want your neighbors complaining about you or filing a lawsuit, so even if you are within the guidelines established by your community, I think it’s best to tuck your bees further away and out of sight (if possible).

Rick
Reply

Rusty,

You seem to have good knowledge on aggressive/defensive bees. We are not in AHB territory, we have three hives that are all derivatives of one hive. We did have a colony collapse three years ago, not due to mites or chemicals. The hive became over-heated and the comb separated and smothered the brood.

Last year we had a bee expert come and evaluate the bees. He was very happy with the population: docile, high production, and very good quality.

However the hives were built by my father-in-law several years ago when he would capture feral hives for people. The hives are just an open box so it is nearly impossible to rob them without destroying much of the colony. So our bee expert started incorporating brood chamber and foundations. The last visit was very bad. The bees got so bad they chased him and anyone around for 200+ yard. They were wound up for more than a week, this was in fall. This spring it appears for the most part the hives are calm but we have rogue bees defending certain quadrants.

My wife got stung yesterday and my father-in-law got chased some 100 yard from the hive. I am not a beekeeper that is why I tried to get a professional, but if this behavior continues I will have to destroy these bees and I don’t want to. I recognize the bee problem CCC with mites and chemicals and I like and need the pollinators.

Any advice? Are they rogue and will they die off?

Rusty
Reply

Rick,

Any number of things can cause your bees to go through a period when they are feisty and defensive. This year has been particularly bad for some reason, and I’m wondering if it isn’t due to unusual weather patterns.

My opinion is that they will calm down in a while. It could be a week or three . . . I don’t really know. But this behavior is usually temporary caused by some condition like the loss of a queen, predators (wasps and such) bothering the hives, unusual weather, loud noises, lack of good forage, or perhaps air pressure. It’s impossible to say.

If a hive remains aggressive for a long while, beekeepers often take out the queen and put in a new one. Then, after a few weeks, the offspring will be the progeny of the new queen with a different genetic makeup. If the bees remain feisty and you want to keep the hives, a beekeeper could do this for you. You would probably have to purchase the queens, unless you have a beekeeper friend who would give them to you.

Other than that, it is up to you how much irritation you want to put up with in exchange for the pollination the bees provide. In any case, do not destroy the hives. Call your beekeeper or another one and donate them. From your description, they sound normal to me, and I’m sure there’s a beekeeper who would love to have them and who will come and take them away for free. Please do not kill them.

Sergey
Reply

Rick,

I was very concerned regarding aggressive behavior of my bees. I searched internet for answer… While I was searching and posting numerous posts at bee-sites, my bees calmed down and behave much nicer now. It looks like the story is the same: (1) feral decent very healthy and prolific bees and (2) bee inspection in accordance to numerous best beekeeping practice rules… I do find so many examples of such combination on the internet… and the same result – bees went crazy, aggressive, behaved not themselves…

I guess, they are sending a message: do not touch us, we are doing fine, do not interfere… Such message is difficult to consume for “classical” beekeeper… what about scheduled weekly inspection? There is ancient Roman law regarding bees – they are declared to be “wild animals” kept in captivity. Thus, once they escaped, they are wild animals and needs to be treated so (no former owner responsibility for the swarms in particular). I think, it is very wise approach and we need to adjust our beekeeping practices accordingly – do not treat bees as a slaves, but as independent creatures! I do not think that such approach would be welcomed by commercial beekeepers, but there are growing movement all around the globe for natural beekeeping, we have a freedom to chose the way for ourselves…and bees will choose their own way…

Mike
Reply

Sergey,

The silence that met your post regarding natural beekeeping was deafening – as well as an indication that you are correct in your statement that “I do not think that such approach would be welcomed by commercial beekeepers…” The natural beekeeping approach is also unwelcome by the army of amateur/hobbyist beekeepers who seem addicted to the practice of continually disrupting the harmony of their hives by incessant manipulation and inspection of the hive. How content and healthy would we humans be if we were constantly subjected to smoke, the roofs of our homes were routinely and repeatedly removed, and the furniture rearranged with each invasion? We would not be content and healthy, and the bees are showing us worldwide that they are not content and happy with it either. I believe that the future health and well being of the honey bee lies in the hands of all beekeepers, but a change in beekeeper attitude will be required. Until beekeepers embrace the concept of becoming bee guardians and relinquish the role of being bee owners, manipulators and orchestrators, I believe the honeybee will continue its struggle to survive.

For anyone wanting to learn more about natural beekeeping, I highly recommend reading “Beekeeping For All” by Abbé Émile Warré. Also, the short book (11 pages) “Beekeeping: natural, simple and successful,” by Johann Thür, is very enlightening. Check the following link for a PDF version of Thür’s book. http://www.users.callnetuk.com/~heaf/thur.pdf
by Johann Thür, Beekeeper

Mike

Rusty,

That was a very interesting post, but it doesn’t even come close to addressing the point of my post above: doing what is best for the bee. Per my references, “Beekeeping For All,” and the article by Johann Thür, with rare exception, yes, I consider myself a natural beekeeper. To imply that any diversion from what would be natural for a bee (harvesting, plastic hive parts, the act of beekeeping itself) detracts from the “naturalness,” is like saying that one is not as human if he has an artificial knee. Even in a natural setting, hives are harvested (bears, skunks, etc.) and bees will build their hives in artificial structures of all kinds (houses, BBQ grills, etc.) While there are degrees of naturalness in any biological construct, generally, the further away from what is natural that one gets, the further away from “ideal” for that construct one gets. So, if the beekeeper’s goal is maximum honey production through hive manipulation, as is the intention of Langstroth hive design, it will be done at the expense of the honey bee. Is that wrong? Well, as you say, how one keeps bees is determined by one’s goals in keeping them. My goal is to provide my hive with an environment as close to “natural” as possible, maximizing the health and contentment of the bees, with little regard to the amount of honey the hive produces. I feel that it is important that every beekeeper realize that other goals are likely to be in conflict with the bee’s best interest.

Rusty

Mike,

If I get an artificial knee, it is because I made the decision myself. When you keep bees, you are making decisions for them. Big difference, but a minor point.

You keep talking about honey production. Sure I take some once in a while, but my bees are going into winter with three deeps brimming with honey. Are yours? And of the honey I already took off, I hold most of it until spring just in case I have to give it back. I don’t see what your beef is here.

Here, try this one: “Let the bee be bees” Really?

Rick
Reply

Rusty,

Some additional information. I live in West TN and my beekeeper whom I spoke to today assured me he will not be deterred by his previous experience and promises to get here in the next few days to rob them which he thinks could be the problem. In talking he said he has seen a very weird trend. He tends many hives and one of his own, which has been the gentlest hive he knows, has just turned “aggressive/defensive.” He has trouble getting to his car in the middle of the day. I told him about your site and he is interested. He also has another hive about 12 miles away that is doing the same thing. He said we have had a huge increase in honey production in the early spring followed by a dramatic drop off. The warm spring caused a lot of the flowers to bloom early and now there is break between early spring bloomers and early summer bloomers. Maybe that is the problem (clover has ceased blooming as we are in a pronged dry period).

Rusty
Reply

Rick,

A nectar dearth is a common cause of aggressiveness. If you are indeed in a lull between early spring flow and early summer flow, that could do it.

Jon
Reply

Rusty – thanks for all the great info on this page. My hive was also extremely aggressive/defensive yesterday to the point where I felt I had no choice but to destroy the colony. I feel terrible about that decision but at the time didn’t see any other option. This is really long as I want to give all the details but I’d appreciate any feedback on if this was normal bee behavior. Here’s what happened.

I’m just north of Dallas, TX. I have a top bar hive on the side of the house next to an 8 foot tall wood fence. I’ve had the bees for one year now and have not had any issues with them up to this point. There was a dearth toward the end of last summer and I fed them well over the winter to ensure they had stores. The winter was very mild here, and now things are blooming and the bees seemed very happy and I could see them bringing in pollen on a daily basis and thus figured they were building honey stores as well.

Yesterday (April 16, 2012), I opened up the hive at about 11:30am with calm sunny weather, temp was probably in the upper 60’s or low 70’s F. It had rained over the weekend. The hive is shaded between the house and fence which was intentional on my part as summer temps will often stay above 100*F here and I didn’t want to chance the comb melting off the top bars. This may have contributed as the front of the hive didn’t have direct sun, thus maybe not as many bees were out foraging.

I removed the first few empty top bars with no problem, working from the outside to the middle. As I removed one frame at a time for inspection and got closer to the center of the hive the bees were a little agitated but nothing out of the ordinary. I’m almost positive I spotted a queen, but it wasn’t marked and thus wasn’t the original queen I purchased last spring. There were also multiple queen cells and a fair number of drone cells. The brood pattern was not spectacular – a couple combs had a decent pattern around the middle but none toward the edges, and the other combs had a spotty pattern. There was not nearly the honey I was expecting either – a little bit stored on the brood combs but no dedicated honey combs. Considering the amount of forage in the area and the activity level of the hive, I almost thought I would need to harvest some honey to prevent a swarm (as is recommended with TBH management).

Then, as I got to the last few frames, I noticed a peculiar smell. This later turned out to be due to wax moths. The TBH design I used has a screened bottom with a removable bottom board so that ventilation can be increased, but it turns out that space between the screen and the removable bottom was the perfect place for moths to breed.

That’s when things got nasty. As I inspected those last couple frames, the bees went berserk. I don’t have another word for it. They were landing on me and actively trying to sting. I was wearing white coveralls (the hardware store kind that you’d use in a messy work environment) with a hat and veil, heavy leather gloves, and tall boots with everything tucked in, but they were still able to make their way in to the veil. I got away from the hive, but they actually chased me to my back door (about 30 feet and around the corner of the house). The bees didn’t let up and continued to try to sting me. By this time I was panicking and trying to swat the bees so that I wouldn’t get stung any more. I know this probably agitated them more, but I didn’t want to have to use the epi-pen I have on hand for just such an emergency. I dashed in to the house with bees still clinging to me and trying to get at my face.

They were so incensed that my brother in law was stung once as he got out of his car in my driveway (about 60 feet away and over an 8 foot fence) as well as the neighbor’s dog (about 10 feet away and over the 8 foot fence) and harassed the neighbor (thankfully he was able to get away with no stings). After I was able to collect myself, I took off the coveralls as I had torn them while trying to get away from the bees. It was the first time I had worn them so maybe they had a strange smell from the factory? I put on jeans and a long shirt (which is what I normally wear when working the hive) and taped over all the openings (wrists, waist, legs, etc) and not only tied but taped the veil to my shirt as best I could.

I went back out just to get the hive closed up, figuring I would give them a chance to calm down. But, they were agitated as I even got close to the hive, and I was barely able to get the cover back over the top before they became too aggressive and were still able to find their way under my veil and were stinging me through my shirt and jeans. I ended up leaving several empty top bars off as I wasn’t able to stay close to the hive long enough to put them back in place.

I ended up with 12 stings on my face and a few other attempted stings (stinger could just barely get me through the fabric so I didn’t get much venom) on my arms and legs. I counted 20 stingers on the right glove, 25 stings on the left, about 15 on my shirt, a few on my jeans, and a few on my coveralls. That’s at least 60 stings (or attempts), plus the aggression of chasing me in to the house and stinging people over 50 feet away. I later collected more than 50 bees that had followed me in to the house either on my clothes or in pursuit as I opened and closed the door as fast as possible.

I worked the hive in the same way I always do: very slowly, making sure to brush aside bees and not squish any, and using sugar water spray to calm them. I didn’t use smoke. Here’s what may have been contributing factors:
* Queen of unknown origin (maybe more aggressive)
* Presence of wax moths and a few small hive beetles
* Very low honey stores despite apparent nectar flow
* First time I’d worn white coveralls instead of regular long clothes
* Might have been too early in the day (cool overnight temps, hive was not in direct sun so they weren’t foraging yet).
* More than 5 queen cells – I’ve read this can indicate problems
* Spotty brood pattern in some places

Given the level of aggression of the bees and the proximity to people, I knew I couldn’t keep bees any more. Even if this behavior was out of the ordinary, if it had happened with more people around (e.g., even walking by the house) they’d be at risk. I had guests arriving from out of town in a couple hours and knew there was no way the bees would be calm before then. My first child is due in June and I can’t risk him or my now pregnant wife being attacked by an overly aggressive/defensive colony. I didn’t have the space to keep them away from people or the time to let them calm down. If I had, I would have waited and closed up the hive and seen if another beekeeper could take them, but that didn’t seem to be an option. So in that moment I destroyed what I loved. I feel truly horrible about killing the bees as I had spent hours watching them go in and out of the hive. I’m still grieving over the destruction of such beautiful, fascinating, and normally peaceful creatures and feel so guilty about my decision. I’m looking for any info or advice as to whether the bees as I’ve described them were more aggressive than normal or what may have caused this.

Jon
Reply

Follow Up: I went through the entire hive frame by frame and examined each comb in detail. What had looked like an inconsistent laying pattern turned out to be a lack of new brood. There were no eggs and no uncapped brood. There was still some capped brood including some workers and a fair number of drones. As I mentioned above, there were multiple queen cells but many of them looked too small to be viable (maybe one would have turned out). All this points to the queen dying at least two weeks ago and the workers trying to raise an emergency queen. Considering they had no honey stores, pressure from pests, and no queen, no wonder they were so aggressive. There was almost no way I could have saved the colony as requeening would have taken at least a week between getting the queen and getting her installed (assuming one was even available). If I had been more diligent in checking the hive I could have removed the pests and would have noticed the dead or failing queen sooner, but between the day job and the weather (tornadoes a few weeks ago, storms, high wind) I never had a chance. Lots of lessons learned here.

Sergey
Reply

Sad, sad, sad story for all parties…
To us, urban … bee-enthusiasts (for some, myself including – not beekeepers yet), it is a lesson – we always should have plan “B” in case if something went “unusual” with our pets. What if the dog got some infectious disease, which is transferable to humans and already bit the neighbor? What if your cat get mad at VIP at your party and scratch the person to the blood? What if neighbor’s pet(?)-parrot decided to attack your cat? Same with bees – we have to be prepared in the same way as for tornadoes, earthquakes etc. Also, I think, we should be responsible for our pets because they are dependent from us. Jon, my condolence to you.

Rusty
Reply

Jon,

That’s quite a sad story and I really don’t know what to tell you. As I mentioned in the post, short of bad genes, there are usually concrete reasons for aggressive behavior and the behavior usually abates as soon as the problem is resolved. Lack of forage, queenlessness, high humidity, loud noises, intruders, parasites . . . are all things that come to mind. Just like humans, bees get cranky when things don’t go their way.

I would not destroy a hive if there was any possibility I–or time–could solve the problem. On the other hand, I can’t criticize someone who decides to take that route, especially when the safety of other people is at stake. It would have been nice if you could have locked them down for a day or two until you had a chance to figure out what was going on. But unless you think about it a day in advance, you don’t get an opportunity to close up the hive.

I feel bad for you and I feel bad for the bees. They were just doing what bees do . . . it’s one of the downsides of urban beekeeping.

Ruby
Reply

Rusty, just a quick update. Our bees seemed to have settled down. My son inspected the other hive and noticed that there were no brood cells. So I guess the old queen left with the swarm and the new queen died or was not laying eggs. My son bought a new queen and put her in the hive last Friday. All seems okay now. We live on a small city lot with houses all around and it seems like the bees did not bother anyone but us.

Rusty
Reply

Good, Ruby, I’m glad it worked out. There is almost always a reason for aggressiveness, the trick is figuring out what it is.

Jeff
Reply

Funny,

Not quite as bad. But more of a one off. I can walk up to my colonies anytime to see if they are acive or not and usually have no issues.

So the other afternoon it was nice, warm spring day and I knew the bees were heavily bringing in pollen. So as I got within 4 feet of my colonies one smacked me right in the face. By the time I has turned around and made 2 steps I was stung right below my left eye. I have never experienced that before.

Later that day I suited up and did an inspection. All colonies are queen right with eggs, open and capped brood. And just coming out of winter there are anywhere from 5 – 6 frames of honey still in the boxes. Daytime temperature was 19.5°C(67°F) And when I did my inspection I didn’t use smoke or sugar water and the bees were not very defensive. It was my first internal inspection for the year.

Rusty, any ideal what has happened? Or is this strictly a one off. Make the best of it where I was stung on the lower eyelid trying to get the stinger out ASAP I drove most of the venom into my eye. It swelled up good.

Rusty
Reply

Jeff,

I wouldn’t make too much of it. Sometimes you find a bee with mean disposition. If it wasn’t a whole of bunch of them, then I think it’s nothing to worry about.

But wow, when I get stung anywhere on my face my eyes swell shut. It is really annoying. I’m preparing to speak to a large group of people next week, but I have to hive some new packages this coming weekend. You can bet I will be wearing a suit of armor!

Phillip
Reply

Man, that is a horror story. I wonder if having a second colony could have saved the bees. Would combining the troubled hive with a healthy hive solve the problem? Perhaps that’s not so easy to do with a TBH.

When I got into beekeeping, the first advice I was given was to always have two hives. That way if any hive got in trouble, I could either combine the hives or give a weak hive more brood, pollen or honey, whatever it needed.

I can understand the decision to destroy the colony, though. With no solution in sight, what other choice was there?

Starting again (eventually), but with two hives, might be the way to go.

Rusty
Reply

I agree with the two hives theory. It gives you so many more management options.

zach
Reply

I have been noticing the same behavior described by all of you above. Aggressive bees that were normally docile and easy to approach. Yesterday I was attacked and stung on the left side of my face by bees from a hive I used to be able to sit near and watch. I was 50 yards from the hive when stung. The bees have been on alert for the past three-four days. Really helps ease my mind that I am not the only one. I am in southern Colorado, and it has been a vary mild spring. Bees have been active for about 6-8 weeks.

Rusty
Reply

Zach,

Since so many people have found an aggressive hive to be queenless, you should take a look and make sure she’s there and laying. If the queen is okay, the aggressive behavior will probably disappear on its own. Give it a few weeks.

zach
Reply

Yep, she is there…….sorry about the misspellings hard to see with my eyes swollen!

Rusty
Reply

No problem, I know the feeling!

Don
Reply

I’m not a beekeeper, but a colony has recently moved into an old wine barrel in my yard. I’d like to let them stay, but from the stories I’m reading it sounds like they could become a problem. Do you have any advice for me?

Rusty
Reply

Don,

Think of it this way: the reason people write in about their bees being aggressive is because it is unusual. Most of the time, bees go about their business and don’t bother anyone. I’ve had multiple hives for many years and I’ve only had one aggressive colony and it calmed down after a few weeks. If you read through the comments on this post, you will see the bees generally calm down as soon as the problem goes away–whatever it was.

I think the decision to keep them needs to be based on how far the wine barrel is from the public. If is right near a sidewalk or play ground, you should probably remove them. If it’s real near your house, you may get stung once in a while, but those of us who love bees just put up with the occasional annoyance.

If you decide you need to get rid of them, call a local beekeeper and someone will come and get them for free. Do not call an exterminator or pest control company. The bees are a natural resource and should not be killed or harmed in anyway.

The other thing you could do is have a beekeeper move them into a regular hive for you. In no time, you would fall in love with them and become a beekeeper yourself.

Jamin
Reply

Just last week I started beekeeping with a newly established hive from Dadant. I can walk by the hive and stand close without any problems but every time I go to change the sugar water jar from the top of the hive they become aggressive when I take it out. Is this normal? I don’t smoke them when I change out the syrup feeder, but should I be or just deal with it? And does it matter what part of the day I’m changing it out? Because I usually change it out in the morning around 7 am before I go to work.

Rusty
Reply

Jamin,

There is a difference between standing near the hive and actually invading the hive. The bees are getting upset because they see your entry into the hive as a threat to their nest. So, the answer is yes, it is normal.

Whether you use smoke or not is a personal decision, completely up to you. I don’t use smoke for changing a feeder jar but I’m sure lots of people do. There is no right or wrong answer. It depends on what makes you comfortable.

The time of day shouldn’t make too much of a difference. More bees will probably fly out when it’s warmest outside, although in the summer they can fly out at most any time of day. You will get accustomed to the rhythm of the bees’ lives as you get more experience, but for now it sounds like you are doing fine.

Jamin
Reply

Something else I’m concerned about is that I’m finding some bees on the ground walking around because they have deformed wings and cannot fly. Is this something I should be worried about? Is it OK to see a few as long as their isn’t a lot? And how many is a lot? Is this something that’s informing me that my hive or hives has deformed wing virus and that I have a problem with varroa mites? I have two hives and I want to open them up but I had another beekeeper tell me not to open them up because the hives are stressed from moving them from where I purchased them. He said to wait 2 weeks before I open the hives to check on them, does that sound right?

Rusty
Reply

Jamin,

It is reasonable to wait a couple of weeks before opening your hives. The idea is that you want the bees to adjust to their new environment and accept it as their home before disrupting them too much.

If I see more than one or two bees with deformed wings, I assume there is deformed wing virus in the hive and plenty of mites. Deformed wings can also be caused by other things, but theses are rare occurrences. If you see several with deformed wings you are most likely seeing just the “tip of the iceberg.” After your two week period (ten days is probably enough) you should probably treat for mites.

Aram
Reply

Rusty,

How is aggressive behavior in your hives now? Mine are a being very defensive, even 30 yards away, without clear sight of me and I live in Kent. Got zapped just yesterday. Do you think giving them some feed will solve that problem? Sort of to help them become fat and happy?

Aram

Rusty
Reply

Aram,

My bees are showing no defensiveness at all; I worked them yesterday with no protective gear. We have lots of trees in bloom down here, which is keeping them busy. Give them feed if you think they need it, otherwise just give them some time.

Have you checked for a queen? Is she laying? If so, they will probably calm down shortly. They should like this weather.

Aram
Reply

Rusty,

I have queens but they are not laying. They laid up a storm earlier in the year, but now have severely cut down. Out of 40 frames, maybe 3 have capped brood and 2 are eggs in any hive. They queen is fat and happy, but I think the nurse bees are cannibalizing the eggs, so I am hopeful that giving them syrup will solve the issue. The rest of the frames have either pollen or are empty. Bees are buzzing everywhere, but the supers and brood boxes are not being filled up. I think that I have too many adult bees that have no nursing duties, therefore every little darn thing is getting them agitated. If I can get the queen to lay up another brood cycle before the blackberries come in, that should give everyone something to do, and I should be in a good workforce shape. So I am giving them syrup. My whole family is anti bees now, last year they did not even notice them.

Rusty
Reply

Aram,

The queens stop laying when they are getting ready to swarm. Could that be the problem? Everything is in bloom right now: vine maples, cascara, fruit trees, and all kinds of flowers. You shouldn’t need to feed syrup. In fact, if they take it they will probably just store it in your honey supers.

Also, your hives should be packed with brood in all stages from egg to capped. Why do you think the workers are cannibalizing the eggs? Have you seen it? It sounds like something isn’t right, although I can’t say what.

You mention capped brood and eggs. How about larvae? Is it possible they superseded their queen and were without a laying queen for awhile and now a new queen has just started to lay? If the timing were right, that could give you a combination of very mature brood and a few eggs.

Aram

No, they are not swarming, there are no swarm cells and none of the top supers have been backfilled. I think the carniolan blood makes them very sensitive to flows. Not seeing anything stored leads me to believe that they are using everything that they collect on brood, and if there is not enough to feed all, they just “eat the young ones”. They are taking the syrup quite readily, so I think that my area is not quite as productive as I wish it would be. Plus the queen is very plump, so they are not really thinning her down any. I’ll continue feeding for a week and see if the temperament changes. Otherwise, I’ll need to swith to pure italians.

LJ
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(Apologies, Rusty, to you and your readers for the following long post. I did think people might be interested in the UK perspective weather-wise and troublesome bee-wise)

Here in the UK, after an unseasonably warm March and two dry winters, we are officially in a state of drought. In my region, East Anglia, we have had a garden hose ban in place as of the beginning of April (as in not using the garden hose for watering plants, washing cars, etc). The day after the garden hose ban went into effect, the rain started with the result that April has been the wettest it has been in 100 years allegedly. Pretty much rain every day of the month. And much cooler weather. May has started off the same way, although this weekend we are having sunny but coolish weather.

You can guess what this has meant for the bees with respect to foraging. In March they were docile, hard-working, bringing in loads of forage. As April progressed we got warning from the national/local associations to start to feed. We knew that one of our two hives was really growing so we went to ‘brood and a half’ and added a honey super to ensure plenty of room.

To no avail. Less than a week ago, that hive swarmed, and we lost the swarm because of position and more inclement weather. The next day the second hive swarmed, and then ‘unswarmed': the bees returned, except for one clump which I think surrounded the old queen.

Today, the bees from the first swarm hive are in a fairly aggressive mood (not as bad as Jon’s but bad enough). Why? Because we opened up the hive (as well as the second swarm hive) for a thorough inspection, as we have not had a chance to do this since March and we were concerned. And rightly so. I had not put enough frames in ‘the half’ brood box because I thought I could keep an eye on it (did this late March/beginning of April), how they would take to it and add frames later. Of course, then we had the April deluge and we were not able to open it up until yesterday. What we found was an edifice of comb loaded with brood and stores, rising up from the top of the frames of the bottom brood box up into the half, as if they had inserted their own frame.

Of course we had to remove it (we placed it in a nuc with some foundation as there looked to be the beginnings of queen cells to see what might happen). And, of course, they were distinctly unhappy. Again not as bad as Jon’s but they did follow us, harassing us, and today more of the same if we are within 10-20 feet of the hive.

Did I mention, because of April they have very little in the way of stores, but many frames of capped brood?

And that they might be waiting on a virgin queen to kick things back into gear? There has been some pollen collection today, although it doesn’t seem as much as what I saw in March. So, she might be there.

I am very sorry for this long sorry tale! Part of the reason is anxiety because the farmer who owns the field in back of our house has decided to mow with the tractor today, and our only close neighbor is out mowing his lawn. SO, thanks for letting me go on a bit!

I know why these bees are in a bad mood, but after all this my question is: should we have waited a week or two before opening up the hive?

Rusty
Reply

LJ,

There’s lots going on here. If I understand correctly, the first hive swarmed but you were unable to catch it. Then the second hive threw a failed swarm that subsequently returned to the hive. So the two hives you refer to as “swarm hives” are the original hives–not hives that swarmed from the original hives. Is that right?

A swarm often returns after it realizes it doesn’t have the queen. A swarm can’t survive without a queen and if the queen doesn’t leave with the swarm, if she gets lost, or she gets eaten, the swarm will return to the colony. You mention a little ball of bees, but I doubt the queen was there. A little ball is usually lost somehow.

Either of your hives could be cranky because they are queenless, because of the weather, because of lack of forage or many other reasons. I don’t think you opened too soon. You said you did a thorough inspection. What did you find? Is their a queen in each hive? You mention capped brood, but how about eggs and larvae? You need to figure out if you have queens or not.

In the hive that successfully swarmed, there must have been virgins ready to hatch. If that is so, then it takes a while for her to start laying. Assume 3 or 4 days maturation time, then a week for mating or longer if the weather prevents it, then another 3 or 4 days maturation time, then she should start to lay. So you should see eggs within 2 to 3 weeks of the successful swarm.

The other one is trickier. If the queen is okay, the hive may try to swarm again. Assuming they were ready to swarm before they tried, you may have more than one queen in there, or you may have none if the original queen killed the virgins, or it may be just like your other hive with no old queen and a virgin queen trying to mate. Your best bet is to keep looking for eggs. If you can’t find eggs after a couple weeks you will need to re-queen.

By the way, bees often build up when there is not frame to build onto. What you saw there is perfectly normal.

LJ
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Hi Rusty

Thanks for your very considered reply. We seem to be in a bit of a holding pattern right now as the weather is still very unsettled: cold, wet, windy. In other words, not good for bees who either want to forage for pollen or swarm!

Apologies for the confusion over hives. We have two: one which is our original, sometimes called our main hive, and our second hive which we often refer to as the ‘swarm hive’ because it is a colony we rehived from a swarm from the main hive last summer. It is this second hive that swarmed and then unswarmed (leaving the clump behind it). It had the original queen from the main hive, about four years old. Going into the winter we were afraid that it would not last as it was very small and didn’t have sufficient stores. Obviously, it has more than survived. The colony has tripled-quadrupled in size. There about 6-7 frames of mostly capped brood, very little brood in other stages (which leads me to believe we are between an old queen and new queen). There seems to be some pollen gathering (there is a glut of sources, some right in our yard), but it doesn’t seem to be significant at the moment.

The main hive has now swarmed twice within a week (both cavorting about the countryside). This is or was about twice the size of the second hive, and why we went to brood and a half to try to forestall swarming. Huh! State of brood about the same as in the second hive, with both main brood box and ‘half’ filled with capped brood, some larvae but not a lot. We found three capped queen cells and at least one which looked as if a queen had hatched. We are thinking that one took of with the secondary cast.

In our three years of beekeeping, we have never been able to identify and mark our queens (even had an association guru out to help us when we were only at one hive, and even he couldn’t glimpse the elusive creature). So we have gone by the stages and amount of brood and the regularity and quantity of pollen gathering. Has worked so far, but difficult if you want to try a split or artificial swarm, which is why we have been reluctant to apply these measure. In fact, I don’t think our attempt on Friday has produced any results.

Bees in main hive seemed to have become less aggressive. There seemed to have been some pollen gathering yesterday, but with the weather being so unsettled it’s hard to tell.

Thanks again for your help.

LJ
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In fact, it is teeming down with hail right now. One can only wonder what all this unsettled weather is doing to the bees here in the UK!

Bannon Bednarcyk
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Hello all:

I just built my hive and got bees on Memorial day.

The weird part was that I bought a colony of 4 frames. Only 2 were delivered initially. The bees were docile. Then a few days later the beekeeper brought me 2 more frames. Many more bees and big attackers resulted. I was standing back watching him install them for me (part of the price) and I got chased. I stood there while one bomber shot right into my eye. Not sure if I swatted him or what, but I got a sting there and one on the face. I also had one in my hair that didn’t sting.

Yes, the beekeeper was wearing a veil for this 2nd delivery…I guess I should have keyed into that and worn one too.

Anyway, later in the day my neighbor wanted to check them out. I said I don’t know but it shouldn’t be a problem…sure enough, they attacked my neighbor and my hair again.

I am hoping to get into that area to organize a water trough which gets filled with drip irrigation, but will definitely wear a veil. I will check for the queen and productivity in a week or so. Hopefully they calm down in the meantime.

I ordered another hive kit so am likely going to get more bees soon but will request that all 4 frames come at the same time instead of two disconnected deliveries.

Any errors to my ways (besides not wearing the veil initially)?

I’m looking forward to the honey next year, having been told that I wouldn’t get it this year because I’m starting late.

BannonB

Rusty
Reply

Bannon,

Well, something isn’t right. It sounds like the seller brought two frames from one hive and later two frames from another hive. Then, when he put them together, they fought. It’s not at all surprising that they were testy. I hope the queen wasn’t killed in the foray.

Normally, you wouldn’t just throw bees from different hives together. You would introduce them gradually through a slit in a piece of newspaper or something.

That said, I’ve known beekeepers who just take a frame from here and a frame from there and put them all together and hope for the best. Still, I don’t like it.

If he’s your only source of bees, tell him you want all frames from the same hive next time. It seems like a ridiculous thing to ask for, since one would assume they all came from the same hive, but then obviously that’s not always true.

You didn’t do anything wrong; he did. Like you say, in a few days check to be sure the queen is laying. In fact, make sure she is there. She could have laid eggs in the few days before the second group came and then got killed. So wait three more days and then start looking for eggs and/or the queen herself. If you can’t find her or eggs after three days, I think your seller should replace the entire mess.

Be sure to write back and let us know what happens.

Bannon Bednarcyk
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Thanks for the comments. It’s good to do a sanity check especially for a complete novice like me.

Just an update on the hive I started with last week…

I found that on the first day they were really pissed, then the entire hive settled down.

I was working around the hive (arranging a water barrel within 5 feet) with no hint of trouble.

Yesterday I was able to sit within 10 ft of the hive and watch the activity. It looked like a busy parking lot. Bees coming and bees going. I couldn’t tell if there was pollen weighing them down but I felt good that they had settled down and gotten to work. I was told by the bee guy to wait 2 weeks before opening it up. I’ll wait til the weekend and see what progress has been made. You better believe I’ll be wearing a veil and learn how to use my smoker by then!

I agree with your reasoning and will be asking for 4 frames from the same hive–delivered at the same time for my 2nd hive.

LuAnn
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I asked if bringing the African honey bees here to America could create a problem, with the known aggressive killer bees being bred with the non-aggressive honey bees. It seems to be a problem in the making and can be serious. I understand that we need bees and that the pesticide companies have caused the bees to die as well as other factors. I certainly hope the bees that are so aggressive can be controlled! I understand in other parts of the world humans and animals have suffered and even died from the aggressive killer bees! So even the money issue as well as the farmers who need bees need to weigh the problem and ask some very important questions!

Rusty
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LuAnn,

We didn’t actually bring Africanized honey bees to North American, they spread all by themselves from Brazil where they escaped into the wild in 1957. They crossed our southern border in 1990 are now in at least ten states, including California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Arkansas and Florida. People as well as animals have been killed in the United States from Africanized honey bee (AHB) stings.

The AHB is not a separate species but a hybrid between subspecies. The African honey bee (Apis mellifera scutellata) crossed with various other subspecies such as Italians and Carniolans to produce a hybrid that is extremely aggressive—what we now called Africanized honey bees. Since they are all of one species, there is really nothing we can do to stop the spread. Beekeepers, especially in the affected states, are aware of the danger, and some beekeepers have left the business because of it.

Beekeepers had hoped the aggressiveness would become diluted in the larger gene pool, but that hasn’t seemed to happen. The aggressive bees will probably continue to spread. As of now, they don’t do well in colder climates. But, as with many genetic limitations, that may change over time with random mutations and gene pool shifts.

Sarah
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Do you know how common (or uncommon) an occurrence of death-by-AHB is? Saying people and animals have been killed by them sounds awful and I can hear the worried mothers now.

Rusty
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Sarah,

It’s not many at all. Something like 15 people since 1990 in the U.S. Animals get killed more frequently (I’ve heard of dogs and cows) but I haven’t seen any numbers on that.

susan
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Wow, reading all this makes me very worried. I just started beekeeping in May with 2 hives. My neighbors, suburban, are about 20 feet from my house. Hive #1 is on the side of my house 3 feet from my house and 8-10 feet from my backdoor and about 10 feet from my fence. Hive #2 is about 15 feet from my backdoor and about 8 feet from my chicken coop and about 10 feet from my fence. I feel like I should get them out of my yard this week after reading about others being chased and going into neighbors yards. All the beekeepers had said how passive the bees are and I could keep them there with no problem. I don’t want to take a risk but don’t know where else to put them.

Rusty
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Susan,

Usually hives are docile and are easily handled in a small suburban yard. Sometimes they act up in the fall for a few weeks due to nectar dearth. But this year I have heard story after story about aggressiveness and I think it is due to the unusual weather in many parts of North America.

I agree with Phillip that it is hard to have piece of mind if you are constantly worried about your bees intimidating the neighbors. Maybe you will be lucky and have docile bees, but maybe not. If you are at all worried, see if you can find a place to keep them out of town. Many farms and nurseries, for example, would be happy to give you free “space” for the summer. Also, if you are in a bee club, maybe a club member has room for more. In some places you can get a permit to keep them on state land, such as state forests. I think if you ask around you will find a solution. Good luck with it.

susan
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Thanks for the great ideas. It is very convenient for taking care of them. I just don’t want them attacking anyone and it seems I have little control over that. I did put feeders on this morning. I also had bought a Carniolan queen in hopes of docile bees. The other queen however is Italian.

Phillip
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Susan, in my little urban beekeeping story, I mentioned that one day the bees got caught in the hair of my next door neighbour. But that wasn’t the bees’ fault. The problem was that I had my hives too close to my neighbours deck. I would guess less than 20 feet, possibly 10 feet. That’s way too close. I had to do a full inspection of a 3 deep hive and some of the bees inevitably got a little riled up. They were docile, but they were flying around the vicinity more erratically. And they got caught in my neighbour’s hair.

I don’t think I would have had any major problems with my bees if I’d kept them farther away from my house and my neighbour’s back deck, even if they did get a little aggressive / defensive from time to time. I’m actually considering setting up one or two hives next spring at my house but in a more out of the way location. (I miss having the bees close by.)

I think urban beekeeping can be safe, but you need nice neighbours (my immediate next door neighbours are not nice people) who you can talk to about the bees, have them over and show them the bees, etc., and the farther away the hives are from humans, the better. There’s more to it than that, but I think it can be done.

Sean
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I have a hive that has become very aggressive over the last month or so. The hive seems to be doing extremely well, but while harvesting honey, they repeatedly stung me through my suit and it took me 30 minutes to get them off of me and back in the house. They were buzzing around the screen door for hours afterwards. It’s been very warm and dry here, so I’m wondering if the nectar flow is non-existent. I just went to water the garden this afternoon (~20 yards from hive) and they were instantly buzzing around me. Not sure what’s going on, but if my beesuit won’t protect me . . . what will?

susan
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What state do you live in? Are you feeding them sugar syrup? if so, are they taking it? Is there a water source nearby?

Sean
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Massachusetts. No syrup since spring. I have a swimming pool (not adequate obviously) and a bird bath that we try to keep full. Also, neighbors across the street have a waterfall-pond feature that they frequent.

Phillip
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I’m not sure what Rusty will say about this, but last year one of my hives got extra defensive after I tried to harvest some honey. I just opened the honey super, pulled out the frames and brushed the bees off. No smoke, no nothing. I probably should have smoked them or at least used a bee escape and taken the honey a day or two later.

The bees will defend their honey stores, but when you’re not nice about the way you take it, they can get even more defensive.

Rusty
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I agree, Phillip. I’ve done both–just brushing and using a bee escape. Things go much smoother using the bee escape and the defensiveness doesn’t last nearly so long.

Sean
Reply

So….what is this said bee escape????

Sean

Okay. Thanks for the info. I still can’t believe a day after getting into the hive, they’re still coming after me.

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