Is there anything more terrifying than a single honey bee who’s marked you for sacrifice? A solo worker who behaves like a thing possessed, a heat-seeking missile, a smart bomb? While most beekeepers are comfortable dealing with a swarm of thousands, a lone bee that’s got your number can be frightening.
The swarm is docile because it’s homeless. Since it hasn’t yet selected new lodgings, it has nothing to defend: no address, no possessions, no kids. It doesn’t even have honey stores. Since there’s nothing to steal, you don’t seem like much of a threat. You can cut the swarm out of a tree, carry it around on a branch, or drop it in a cardboard box without so much as a veil.
But the single worker who tags you is likely a guard bee. She’s on a mission to protect her home, her queen, her food stores, and the all-important brood nest. While most guards work in proximity to the hive, one or more may decide to go looking for trouble before it comes knocking.
Noise, odors, and commotion
These single-minded bees are unusual because something that’s not bothering the rest of the colony sets them off. Around our place, it’s usually the lawnmower. You can mow among many hives—tens of thousands of bees—and one individual will decide you’re a problem. There is almost nothing you can do once these loners decide to go after you. They head-butt, circle, and dive-bomb. If they get the chance, they will sting.
Other noisy machinery can stir them up, too, such as leaf blowers and pressure washers. Dogs can set them off and so can unusual activity, such as a backyard barbecue, a game of volleyball, or kids splashing in a pool.
After many years and quite a few stings from these perverts, I began netting them. Now, if one follows me, I just whisk her out of the air with my insect net. I flip the net over so she can’t get out and lay it in a nice shady spot where she can cool her heels. Once the threat is gone, I let her go. Although she looks embarrassed, she’s unharmed by her time in the slammer.
Not all followers are honey bees
If you’re outside minding your own business, you may be followed by a lone bumble bee. This bee may circle you round and round and round, staying with you step-by-step for long stretches.
Each spring I’m circled by the same bumble bee that follows me for miles along the forest paths—or so it seems. It’s not the same bee, of course, but it sure seems that way. Each year, the sound is the same, the rhythm is the same, and the direction of travel is the same, making it feel like the same bee. Genetics is like that. Bees are programmed to behave in a certain way and nothing will change that.
Circling bumbles are males. They patrol distinct areas or individual plants, protecting them for their women. Once they have staked out a territory, they defend it from all comers. This threatening behavior keeps all kinds of creatures at bay, including other bees, insects, small animals, and large humans. The only welcomed guests are female bumbles of the same species.
If you’re wondering how a bee could possibly mistake you for a threat to his manhood, well, that’s a good question. Perhaps you can chalk it up to thoroughness: if he just chases every living thing, he won’t need to make a head-scratching decision on each individual. Who knows?
Unlike female bees, male bees are without stingers, so all they can do is act ferocious and sound intimidating. They may perform an occasional head-butt, but they are harmless—all bark and no bite.
Big-eyed bees that hover and stare
Another group of spring bees that can feel menacing are male Habropoda bees like the ashy digger bee in the west or the blueberry digger in the east. These bees can hover remarkably well. They will fly within inches of your face, stop dead in the air, and stare at you, eye-to-eye.
This is indeed intimidating, so much so that it’s easy to forget they can’t sting. These are some of my favorite bees, partly because they are so brash and partly because they are so beautiful. For years, I’ve tried to photograph them staring into my camera lens, but they get so close I can’t get them in focus: as I step back, they move forward. I will keep trying, although it’s probably a fool’s errand.
What lone bee do I see?
As you can see, not all bees that circle and threaten are a problem, but telling them apart on the wing is tricky, especially if you are not familiar with bee behavior. However, if a bee is circling a specific plant or hovering, it is probably not a honey bee.
If you are a beekeeper, you can tell them apart by the sound of their buzz or their flight patterns. If there are no honey bee hives in your immediate area, they are probably not honey bees, although feral colonies can live just about anywhere unknown to us humans.
If a bee intimidates you, try to remain calm and walk away from it. Do not thrash, swat, or run and you will most likely be able to leave it behind.
Honey Bee Suite
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