Yellow rain

Although it is late fall here in the northern hemisphere, it is late spring in New Zealand. Down there the honey bees are rocketing from nest to nectar and back again, feeding their young and leaving telltale yellow splotches everywhere.

Earlier this week I received a fascinating e-mail from a man on the northern end of the South Island who it trying to help an elderly beekeeper friend. The beekeeper, who maintains five hives, has been called before the local district council to answer a complaint about bee excrement. He is being accused of letting his little darlings defecate on his neighbor’s windows.

Right away I suspected this was more of a neighbor problem than a bee problem because these disputes usually are. It turns out I was right—in a previous complaint the neighbor attested that the beekeeper’s house is four inches too high. Obviously, the neighbor needs to get a life, but I digress.

The man who wrote—not a beekeeper—says his elderly friend is non-confrontational and requested help with the district council. He, in turn, asked for my help. So here are the facts as I understand them:

  • The five hives are within 80-100 meters (260-330 feet) of the neighbor’s property line.
  • Although these hives are the closest to the neighbor’s house (the target), about 30 other managed hives belonging to other beekeepers are within a half-mile of it.
  • The surrounding area is heavy with bumble bees, other native bees, and wasps.
  • Pollen is particularly heavy this year, and it drifts onto window sills and other surfaces.
  • The district council has already decided these five hives are the problem and it has threatened to use DNA analysis to prove it.

And this is the way I see it:

  • A half-mile is nothing for a honey bee. Any of the 35 colonies could be hitting the target house.
  • The distance from the target is not as important as the direction of travel. So, if the bees have found a good nectar source to the south, for example, it may be the colonies north of the target that are marring it. This will change constantly, of course, as different things come into bloom.
  • With honey bee season in full swing and forage plentiful, any number of swarms may have nested in the area. The target neighbor could have a feral nest on his own property and not even know it.
  • The native bees are also dropping feces. In fact, in some years I have seen it dripping down the front of my mason bee houses like mustard.
  • I don’t believe anyone is going to do a DNA analysis of bee poop. For one thing, it’s way too expensive. But even if the target neighbor is rolling in money, what would DNA tell him? A newly issued swarm and its parent colony are going to have virtually the same genetic make-up, so how do you decide who done it?

Anyway, that’s where they stand at the moment. Apparently, the district council in its infinite wisdom will be examining the situation on Friday and I hope my correspondent tells me the outcome. In the meantime, I’ll tell you a little secret: The neighbor makes me wish I could fly.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

Comments

Lois
Reply

You are so right. The problem is a neighbourhood dispute, if it wasn’t the bees it’d be something else. The DNA analysis would be totally pointless without checking every other colony in the area too. There seems to be a lot of anti-bee stuff coming out of NZ at the moment, wonder what lies behind it?

Janet Wilson
Reply

Rusty, my hive (which was enormous this year) is about 25′ from my back door. The bees generally flew right over or toward and beside the house to forage, and were rising from the hive entry height (18″) to 20′ by the time they approached the house. My house has TONS of windows and glass sliding doors facing the hive. Not one speck of bee poop anywhere (and I had gobs of bumblebees and other pollinators, including honeybees from nearby hives, in my garden all summer). Not even on the white deck railings and eavestroughs was there bee trace. I would cooperate entirely with, even demand, identifying the substance in question! The municipality should hire an independent firm to collect and identify the substance at issue. It is unlikely it is bee poop at all, and incidentally I do not think you can easily do DNA analysis on excrement. You are looking for the bee DNA, not the DNA of what the bee ate. Bee DNA in bee excrement…how would you isolate bee cellular material from digested material?? We must look into that fascinating forensic issue.

One would wonder when the offending material appeared on the house. If in winter or early spring, unlikely it was from insects.

The bottom line is, even if the neighbour is unstable or deluded, he has a right to be heard and to have his claims given a fair hearing and help addressing whatever issue is in play. The beekeeper has a right to a fair examination and a fair examiner. The process needs to play out if for no other reason than if the neighbour feels he is not being given a chance to be heard, he will move on to even more disruptive ways of getting his needs met.

One compromise would be the beekeepers banding together in good will to fund one fall power-wash of the house in question per year.

Meanwhile, I agree that it could be any of the colonies in a two mile radius, or any of the native pollinators who could be leaving trace.

Rusty
Reply

Janet,

I too was wondering about DNA testing of excrement; it doesn’t seem to make sense. I think it was an idle threat meant to intimidate. By the way, at my place there is bee excrement all over the cars and lawn furniture, but I’ve never seen any on the windows. A bee would have to be going really fast to get it on a vertical surface.

keith
Reply

It seems to me more like that the guilty party is a nocturnal insect that is attracted to the light coming through the windows. For honey bees to foul or “spot” vertical window glass means that they would need to dive bomb the windows. This is just not normal worker bee behavior. I am doubtful bee poop would show up in large amounts on window glass 100 meters from just 5 hives. If it is honey bee poop on the windows it sounds more like something that would occur during a swarm and that is an isolated one time event.

Rusty
Reply

Keith,

More really good points. I hope they get a chance to read your arguments before their meeting on Friday.

Shaun
Reply

Yes, I live in NZ and recently removed 3 hives from my Mums rear vege garden for the same reason. I now have a council issued permit for 1 hive in Mums front flower garden. Moral of the story keep your hives and bees out of sight. Oh and my day job is domestic window cleaning and houses in the “Beeline” do get a lot of hard to remove yellow bee poo on the windows that get the sun.

Janet Wilson
Reply

I think the most interesting point raised is that for insects to poo on a vertical surface they would have to be crawling on it. This does not sound like bees or bee behaviour…I never saw them crawling on the glass unless I had just taken a bunch of honey frames into the house for processing…then a couple followed me to the sliding glass doors. And since bees are not nocturnal, they would not be the ones seeking the light inside at night.

My bet is that the trace is at best from an unidentified nocturnal insect. If not…ummmmm…imagined.

In reading quickly you can do DNA analysis on excrement from mammalian digestive tracts as large amounts of mucous and epithelials from the gut lining are caught up in the feces. Insect dung may be another matter entirely, but if possible, it may reveal species of insect.

Tom Hughes
Reply

This is interesting. My wife had a visit from animal control a couple of months ago after I grew to 12 hives in my backyard in an urban area near Monterey, CA. This was the result of a neighbor up the hill to the east complaining about bee poop everywhere on their cars and windows.

At the time, I was convinced it was a feral hive closer to their house, because they had more yellow dots than we have on our windows and cars. Since then, I’ve come to realize that the bees are way up in the air, the neighbor’s house is the tallest around, and the wind is almost always blowing and almost always from the west. So I know think it is my bees and I feel kind of bad about that.

Unfortunately, those neighbors don’t like honey and don’t care about bees, and like a spotless house. I’ve checked with other neighbors and they seem happy to put up with yellow dots on cars and windows because they care about bees and the environment (and they like honey). So I’m going to try to spread out my hives into neighbors yards and maybe move some a little farther outside the city.

Interestingly, the dean of beekeepers here (Wally is now 94 and has been keeping bees for 40 years a few doors down the street) was taken to city council by a different neighbor about 10 years ago upset over bee poop on his cars. The city council decided that bee poop wasn’t harmful and gave Wally a permit to keep bees.

Charlie
Reply

In urban San Francisco our club deals with this from time to time. Bee poop is not corrosive and comes off easy with warm water and Simple Green. I had a neighbor with a black BMW that got pelted from my rooftop hives so I moved them more towards the center of the roof. Now when they leave the hive, they poop on the roof and not the BMW.

Janet Wilson
Reply

When I was having a difficult conversation with a cranky neighbour, the phrase “I do not want these bees to be a problem for you’ really surprised and pleased my neighbour. He calmed down immediately and we were able to move from him fussing to us problem solving. Although I do not think he will ever be very happy with the bees around ie. visible, he was reassured that I would step up to both prevent and mitigate problems. I also left the phone numbers of two local Master Beekeepers in case I was not around and he needed advice or help. I will try keeping the one hive in the back yard again next season, but I will make it less visible, and if my neighbour just can’t bear them there, I have arranged for outyards to move to. The surprising thing for me has been that the move to outyards, which I was quite disappointed to have to make, has turned out to be a great experience. I have met lots of really nice, similar minded people, and the increased space has opened up more facets of beekeeping to me ie. bee breeding. A local wildlife trust has even been receptive to partnering to help me find land and set up a program for bees. I am not sure where this new journey is taking me but so far it has been interesting and rewarding!

Charlie
Reply

You’re right Janet. It’s not the end of the world to move some or all of your bees to an out yard. Maybe a little less convenient but it’s one of many alternatives to keeping the peace with your neighbors.

Nick
Reply

Rusty,
Did you ever hear what came out in the end?
Umm..
What was the final fallout?
Darn it…
What was the end result?
*sigh*…
Somedays, english is hard.

Nick
Kent, WA

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