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

Breanne Graham
Reply

Glad I found this site too. My normally sweet bees are acting very aggressively. I was stung 8 times yesterday doing a hive inspection, and once this morning while walking by the hive. I was worried that they might be so agitated that they would abscond this late in the year. But if other people are experiencing the same thing it must be a combination of factors. I also assume that if they are defending the hive this aggressively, they probably won’t want to leave it.

Cheryl Tustin
Reply

We live in Garnet Valley, Pa near Chadds Ford. We have 2 hives . . . one established and thriving and the other is new this spring and seems to be in trouble. The new hive queen was a Russian queen and we bought the bees from Ohio. Both hives looked great in August and then we checked them again about 1 week ago. One hive was full of brood and honey but unfortunately, the other hive was very light, hardly any honey, no brood and we could not locate the queen which we have always been able to do in the past.

The hive has been very aggressive and we have had bees actively go after us near the house (our hives are in the back yard . . . we have about an acre and a half) which we have never seen them do before. We have been feeding them a 2 to 1 mixture of sugar for the last week and they have continued to be aggressive. I have had to wear my suit and gloves to feed them which is unusual even in the fall.

I talked to someone from the Pa beekeepers association who recommended to add the problem hive to the established hive that has good stores of honey. I was worried that they may fight and we may have 2 hive failures . . . he said to separate the newly introduced supers from the other hive with a piece of newspaper with a hole in it to slow down the transfer of bees into the hive. Someone else suggested to remove a frame of honey from the stable hive and add it to the other hive. I was also wondering if we could reintroduce a new queen and if any queens would be available locally. Any help you can offer would be greatly appreciated.

Rusty
Reply

Cheryl,

All the things you noticed are characteristics of a queenless hive, including aggression, no brood, and (sometimes) low honey supplies. This time of year it will be hard to find a queen, and even if you did, the colony doesn’t hive time to build up a cluster of bees for winter.

I agree with the beekeeper who recommended combining the weak hive with the strong one. The newspaper method works well, except I would recommend using a small slit (or no opening at all) rather than a hole because a hole may combine them too fast. Here’s a post with more tips on combining with newspaper.

Ruby
Reply

My son has 2 bee hives, got them last year. I cannot be outside right now because the bees keep chasing me in the house. It is spring and I have fruit trees blooming but the bees do not seem to be collecting any nectar. Do you have any idea why the bees keep buzzing us?

Rusty
Reply

Ruby,

Are the hives close to the house? Usually honey bees aren’t very aggressive in the early spring, so it’s hard to say. Have you been stung or are they just casing the area? They may just be looking for food, checking out everything in the area. You don’t say what kind of fruit trees you have, but some are not very attractive to honey bees–pears for example.

My guess is that the bees haven’t yet found a really satisfying source of food. When they do they will get busy with that and leave you alone. I think you will see a change soon. Write and let me know if that’s what happens. I’m curious.

Ruby
Reply

The hives are close to the house, but last year I had no problems. I have not been stung, they just buzz around my head and they dive bomb my husband. I have plum trees blooming, flowering almond trees blooming and forsythia blooming, the apple tree will be blooming soon. All around the neighborhood there are Bradford pears blooming, and a lot of trees with pink blossoms, do not know what kind of trees they are.

They are getting water from the pond.

My son has been working long hours and has not had time to put on the supers, could that have anything to do with it? He checked one hive and said there was still a lot of honey in it and a lot of brood.

Rusty
Reply

Ruby,

I don’t think the lack of supers would cause that behavior. Right now my bees are flying around randomly and seemingly without purpose, but we have very little in bloom here. I’ve seen the bees in the grass, on the fence posts, and my dog has been chasing them but they haven’t been chasing us. I was going to suggest that perhaps they are queenless, but if your son sees lots of brood, that’s probably not it either. Maybe he should check the other one and see if it has a queen.

I’ve rarely seen aggressive bees this time of year, it usually happens in the fall. Readers? Does anyone have an answer for Ruby?

Ruby
Reply

Rusty, we worked outside Saturday with no problems (putting up a storage shed). Sunday the bees starting buzzing again. My son will be checking the other hive as soon as he stops working 12 hours a day. He did make the opening to the hive larger, the bees were hanging outside trying to cool off.

Rusty
Reply

Ruby,

Thanks for keeping me posted . . . interesting situation.

Ruby

Rusty, the hives swarmed on Saturday. New hives so we did not think they would swarm. Found people to take the two swarms. Maybe that is why the bees were aggressive, or maybe it has something to do with the crazy weather. Sunday was 81 here in Albuquerque, NM and now it is snowing.

Rusty

Ruby,

They both swarmed on Saturday? Wow, I’m really surprised because I didn’t think that was the problem . . . but maybe I should have. If you caught both swarms that is also amazing. Since I’ve been following this thread, two other beekeepers have written with similar symptoms so now I will tell them to prepare for swarming. I have never found bees to be aggressive before a swarm, but I learn something new every day. Thanks so much for sharing with me. Keep me posted about whether the remaining bees become more docile or if they maintain that mean streak.

Brian Shelton
Reply

I have one hive. Last year I could go and sit at the front corner of the hive and watch them. This year I had to change the bottom hive boxes. The bees remained defensive for hours and even two days later one met me before I made it to the car and attempted to sting my head. Everything is blooming and I’m sure they aren’t Africanized. I use to be able to walk past my hive without thinking anything about it. My hive is only about 50 feet from the house so I can watch them. I have had them two years and this is the first time they have been, let’s say, prolonged defensive. Thanks for any advice.

Rusty
Reply

Brian,

A lot of people are complaining about aggressiveness in their bees this spring, which is unusual. I’m beginning to wonder if it has something to do with the abnormally warm weather so early in the year. I don’t know where you are writing from so I don’t know if you’ve been affected by the warm temperatures. I am wondering if the flowers are blooming but producing smaller amounts of nectar than usual . . . or something along that line. I just don’t know.

I suspect your bees will calm down soon, that this is just a passing phase. We are having our normal wet and cold spring here in the Pacific Northwest and my bees are acting just like they always do. I really think the aggressiveness is weather related, but I don’t know why or how. I’m interested to know if your bees calm down as the weather pattern returns to normal. Let me know if they do. Also, if you are not in the unusual temperature zone, let me know that as well. Thanks.

Sergey
Reply

I am glad I found this site. I am in Santa Monica, CA. I have two beehives close to the house. Until recently, bees did not bother us at all. I could sit just next to the hive to watch them. I noticed that they got agitated progressively more after each hive inspection this spring. First, it took them longer to calm down. Now they dedicated a few bees to patrol our back door, so we could not use our backyard. After a few days, they normally release a “blockade”, but it looks like it’s getting worse. Our local beekeepers all agree that I need to re-queen because of the possibility that the bees are Africanized (in fact,they look smaller than normal bees). So, to queen or not to queen? Sergey

Rusty
Reply

Sergey,

It is really hard to tell at a distance. As I said in the post, honey bee aggression varies throughout the year and it varies from queen to queen. Also what one person considers overly aggressive may be reasonably aggressive to someone else. If your weather is hot and humid the behavior may be worse than when it is cooler and less humid. I’m guessing that if you’ve co-existed with these bees in your backyard for the past few weeks, they are not Africanized. Rather than a few bees coming after you, dozens would be after you. But only you can decide how much of the aggressive behavior you are willing to put up with.

If it were me, I’d probably wait to see if they swarm and to see if the behavior subsides. Then again, I don’t have my bees close to the house. Also, I’m not in California. If multiple local beekeepers are suggesting that you re-queen perhaps you should listen to them. You might be more relaxed in any case.

Sergey
Reply

Rusty,

Many thanks for quick response. Unfortunately, we are in very urban area with neighbors etc. If I would have just a little bit more space, I would consider bees behavior as acceptable. The thing about these bees – they were VERY neglected in the past, they are survivors. I sort of adopted them. They are very healthy, prolific and deliver a lot of honey. They used to be gentle – I had my morning tea in the garden just 10 feet away from the back of the beehive.

I feel, with all these bee problems in US, I want to keep these survivors to keep healthy and strong bees in the area. Re-queening means that I will lose this somehow unique stock… I am really reluctant to do so. Thus, I am looking for some non-traditional solutions to be in peace with my bees. Also, it seems to me, there are some trigger(s) which switch them into “attacking” . . . in my opinion, it is little bit exceeding the defense mode. My current theory is that it is the smoke – they hated it! I tried sugary water, but it is not enough.

Partially, the problem is that I an a novice in bee the business (6 mo) and probably the bees feel my nervousness, but I guess they misread it – I’m just afraid to damage them. So, any advice on how to provoke them less would be highly appreciated.

By the way, weather, no we had actually quite cold weather, colder than normal. We had one rain – these crazy workaholics just flew into the rain, they did not stop… It seems to me they have plenty of honey and nectar/pollen supply, they are not searching for the food. Hive has a double-bottom with mesh screen and top ventilation. They are not overheated. They also have plenty of space, an empty super has been added during the last inspection a few days ago. Varroa count is 20/day.

Gail
Reply

I am new to beekeeping and have ordered 2 new hives for this spring in Utah. I was considering doing some urban beekeeping (I only have 1/2 an acre and neighbors on 3 of 4 sides of my property, road on the fourth side with kids walking to school. After reading all the posts here I am wondering if they will become a nuisance to my neighbors and if I have enough space as a buffer between humans and bees. I can place them further out away from town, but I was hoping to benefit from some pollination in my garden this year. Does anyone with experience want to offer me some advice?

Rusty
Reply

Gail,

Aggressiveness in bees comes and goes as I mentioned in this post. You can have bees for years in a urban setting and never have problems. On the other hand, it doesn’t take them long to cause trouble if for some reason they feel cranky. You don’t want to cause harm to others or get yourself sued, so I would recommend that you err on the side of caution. Still, it’s an individual call and you know your circumstances better than anyone else.

If any of you urban beekeepers have some advice for Gail, please write in. Also, Gail, read my post about Brushy Mountain’s urban beekeeping webinar. It discusses some of the urban issues. Brushy Mountain may still have that webinar available for you to hear.

Jeremy
Reply

Are the bees that remain in the hive after swarming usually extremely defensive for several days or until it re-queens? I have Carnolians and was planning to split my hives yesterday; however, one of the hives swarmed before I could make the split. I successfully captured the swarm but the bees from the original hive are very defensive. Our back yard is off limits and the hive is 200 ft from the house; as soon as someone goes out the bees sting. I live in WV and I don’t think Africanized bees are an issue here.

Rusty
Reply

Jeremy,

Whenever bees are queenless they can get defensive. After a swarm, the remaining bees are protecting their hive, their brood, and their virgin queen. They are short on foragers, short staffed in general, and are protecting everything they have left with zeal. Give them a week or two and they should calm down.

Sergey
Reply

“Aggressive bees” update.
My bees finally returned more or less to normal, but still sensitive. It looks like they show aggressiveness for 3-4 days after beehive inspection/disturbance. For 3-4 days they just patrol our back door non-stop all day. After that, they do release the “blockade” but visit backdoor from time to time. Usually only 3-4 bees involved. My observation on this is that these bees (who patrols) are programmed to “attack” – they just looking for occasion. My current theory is that during the hive invasion, some bees switched into “attacking” mode and continues to be in the same mode when danger is over for couple of days (until dies?). After a few days they ether just forget about their mission or, may be just died… (after attack?). To minimize the aggressiveness, I decided to do the following: (1)minimize invasion into beehive (less frequent and less invasive if possible); (2) minimize or eliminate at all the smoke (have smoker nearby just in case); (3) to see if I could create artificial barrier between beehive and backyard – I am thinking about sort of “curtains” made out of green plastic mesh/screen material – to imitate bushes… sort of; (4) bees on mission – eliminate at the backdoor (no damage to the body) in hope that my theory is correct and there are only few bees have been reprogrammed (this approach would not help if beehive sent new bees to patrol). It is really sad to even think about destroying bees, but I think, it is less damage than complete redoing the colony (change queen). Any your comments, suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

On urban beekeeping. City of Santa Monica (CA) recently established rules for beekeeping. I think, they are very reasonable. There is some guideline regarding beehive placement:
(1) Hives shall be located at least five feet from all property lines.
(2) Hive entrances shall face away from or parallel to the nearest property line(s).
(3) Hives must either be screened so that the bees must fly over a six-foot barrier, which may be vegetative, before leaving the property, or be placed at least eight-feet above the adjacent ground level.
They also required re-queening every 2 years, swarming control and that bees owner provides source of water.
http://www.qcode.us/codes/santamonica/index.php?topic=4-4_04-4_04_130&frames=on

Sergey
Reply

Update on my “aggressive” bees: I did beehive inspection last week. It was a huge difference. I was expecting my bees “usual” behavior (quite protective if not aggressive), but everything was much calmer this time. I did usual stuff. I think, the major difference was in myself – I was calmer and relaxed. Also, I decided to use a little bit smoke (against my previous decision) – I think I smoked entrance correctly this time – a few gentle puffs just inside the hive at the entrance and than wait. After inspection I was expecting my bees usual patrol of the backdoor for 3 days, but, no – no patrol at all. Bees behaved themselves – very busy and just do not pay attention to me.

From another hand, totally unrelated to my bees, my neighbor did his bees inspection and his bees attacked me in garage quite far away from his place (no casualties so far). Interestingly, they were not interested at all in my wife – I think, they do not like my smell. Everything is balanced.

I am so glad that I did not follow the extreme recommendations to re-queen. Rusty, many thanks for your suggestion to wait and to not do anything extreme – you were absolutely right!

Rusty
Reply

Excellent! I’m glad it worked out.

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.

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