bee biology

Are You Harassed by a Single Bee?

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.

Sometimes a single bee feels more intimidating than a large group of bees.
This Vancouver bumble bee, Bombus vancouverensis (although there are multiple dissenting opinions) was found in Big Summit Prairie. Oregon. Photo by Rusty Burlew.

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.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

Digger bees (Habropoda) are some of the earliest spring bees. A single male bee can intimidate by hovering in the air close to your face. Photo by Rusty Burlew.
Digger bees (Habropoda) are some of the earliest spring bees. They intimidate by hovering in the air and staring at you, eye to eye. Photo by Rusty Burlew.

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42 Comments

  • Yes!!! I know exactly the bees you are talking about. We’ve got six hives in our apiary so it’s real busy but one hive seems to be a little bit hot. And just walking through can pick up a guard bee. And you know when that buzzing sound has started to circle around you. Yeeshk!! A butterfly net. Great idea, thanks Rusty.

    • Ha! We refer to these lone antagonists as “Nasty Nancy” or “Mad Myrtle”. I hate it when I pull up to my hives and before I can even get out of the car and get my veil on … pow! I’m stung. Its just not fair play. I’m not as forgiving as you Rusty. I’ve got one of those tennis racket insect zappers that I quickly dispatch these irritables with.

  • I remember seeing lone bumble bees circle around me when I walked through the garden. It’s nice to know that they probably can’t sting. I’ve been beekeeping for a while and I still get nervous when a lone bumble bee or honey bee gets interested in me.

  • Great article! And I love the hint about the net. When I’m working my hive, and one bee in particular won’t leave me alone, I simply walk slowly away until I’m some distance from the hive, and then I stand still. After a few moments, the bee returns to her hive. I’ve always loved bumbles and have never, ever felt threatened by them. I’ve had them land on me and hitch a ride as I walk around.

  • Timely posting, Rusty. Just last week, while putting in my tomatoes, peppers, etc in Hood River, a good 40 feet from our two hives which I had inspected 5hours earlier in the morning, a persistent guard kept letting me know I was an intruder. If I could see behind me, I would have happily eliminated this fixated guard bee. But, she knows how to intermittently buzz you, so you know she’s there. Approaching in the optical shadow of the bill of my Sounders cap. Looking for the opportunity, sneaking up behind, keeping you off balance. Even following me up to the entrance to our house.

    Glad to know it’s not personal. I thought it might be only me. (Now I need to order an insect net. Any recommendations?)

    • Daniel,

      I have a half-dozen insect nets that I’ve used for different pollinator surveys. But for around the apiary, just an inexpensive net designed for kids works fine. You don’t need a long handle because the bee you want usually hangs around within an arm’s distance. I’ve seen kids’ nets at places like Walmart and Fred Meyer, or you can order them at Amazon.

  • Under the “live and learn” column, I submit the following.

    Yesterday was a fine sunny day with little breeze and the excitement of transferring a nuc into its new home.

    Having read many times of bee video commenters using a spray of sugar syrup instead of smoke, I decided to give it a try. 99.99% of the nuc were calm and oblivious of me when I opened up the nuc top before proceeding to calmly transfer over the frames.

    As you might guess, two or three bees definitely took umbrage at my presence. After a quick bump or two to the suit, two quickly found my hand and dug in. The third followed me back to my now valuable smoker, harassing as she went.

    It might be a while before I test the ‘no smoke’ hypothesis again. But I likely will for the sake of findings reliability.

    • Gerry,

      Apparently, even the ancient Egyptian beekeepers used smoke, so I consider it a useful and proven tool. Just my two cents.

    • I add a few drops of Honey B Healthy to the sugar water when I spray. Not scientifically tested but they do like that scent and it could cover the alarm pheromones.

  • I was walking away from my hive and had one follow me to my sliding door buzzing around. I went to the store for 20 minutes and when I came back, I swear the same one was still there buzzing around. Tenacious!

  • This is spot on. It seems like each trip to the bee yard I have a self appointed pursuer bee. The suggestion about the net is brilliant and I intend to try it. I have also found that many times if I withdraw to the deep shady areas of the woods adjoining the open area of the hives the bee may decide to give up the chase.

    • Horses,

      Yes, that’s a good point. If I duck into our dark garage, they usually won’t follow.

  • Sometimes when a single honey bee won’t stop harassing me–when I walk away but she persists in following, even if I go inside a building she meets me at the door when I imagine it’s safe to come back out–I wonder if this is the bee that already stung me. I know they can take a while to die; perhaps they dedicate their dying time to absolute defensiveness.

  • I’ve experienced this guard bee stalking as well. There are several arborvitae and Norway Spruce near my hives, and I find that if I back into the branches of either tree, the bee will quit bothering me. I don’t know if I’m bruising the needles and releasing just enough of that citrusy conifer smell to disguise my scent, or if my shape has become camouflaged by the tree, or what, but it always works. And, yes, we all do need Connecticut.

  • Yes. .. THAT bee!

    I have a roof section that overhangs my front door and extends out about 20 feet. Above that is an upstairs window.

    I finished up and closed my hive. Picked up a bee that would not leave me alone as I walked away. I had to go into my house and close the door. I thought I was safe so went upstairs. Oh no, that darn bee found me. It fly in the open upstairs window and continued to harass me.

    Unfortunately, I had to dispatch her in an unpleasant way.

  • I’ve taken to calling her TOB (pronounced “Toby”) for That One Bee, and I usually end up resorting to hand-to-hand combat against her, which is 100% ridiculous looking. I really should switch over to the net method.

    Last year I had a colony that just would not stop producing TOBs. They’d come and harass people 50’ or more away, without any apparent cause. After one inspection a TOB followed me and I decided to see how persistent she’d be. I walked (in my suit still) more than 100’ away before she desisted and then she’d be right back on me the minute I re-entered the perimeter. This went on for more than a half-hour! That colony got requeened soon after.

  • I notice TOBs (I am so adopting that!) most often during the buildup to swarms in spring. They seem to go further out of their way to do their war dance in front of my face – 50 to 100 yds away vs the usual 5 or 10 ft. As my hives are pretty near the house and within our pocket farm area, these TOBs can be a problem for anyone working outside during that time. A cheap bee veil solves the problem for us. As the bee is usually focused on the face, if she can bounce off a stiff veil for a while (sometimes an hour or more), she stays occupied while we stay unstung and productive. For us, losing her in the brush – figs or blueberries for us – isn’t effective long as we have to go back to work in the same spot she chased us from. Also, oddly enough, if one person is being bothered by the TOB, the other humans in the area can often go unmolested…unless she brings friends.

  • Ah, addendum. I just realized I didn’t make clear that the person being bothered needs to be wearing the veil. It won’t work as a scarecrow or lure if set up on a pole or something.

  • Received a new colony from a friend who was downsizing. This colony has tenacious guard bees! They have followed me at least 100 feet from the apiary. I’m hoping they will calm once they are settled in the new location. Love the net idea! Thanks!

  • Here on the west coast (WA), we have bumbles who like to nest in the ground. They make a point of circling “intruders” but no one has been stung. Usually I just say OK, sorry, and walk in a different direction, they don’t follow if you leave right away. Used to have honey bees, but the bald hornets kept killing the nests so gave up on that. Now, there’s a bee I would gladly exterminate – the bluish colored bald hornets. Vicious and bad tempered. They sting without provocation or warning, and their stings are truly painful and long lasting. They attack honey bee hives and kill all the honey bees in a raid (we have watched them do this) to the last bee. We stopped having hives, since then we have only seen a few of these nasty creatures. I found a way to dispatch them when they feed on the fallen pears and get drunk. I am only too happy to squish them.

    • Northern Idaho here. Hi, neighbor! I keep a fly swatter near my hive to smack the yellowjackets and hornets that harass my bees. I’m not always out there, so I know I’m missing some, but even one dead one is one less that will be hurting my girls.

  • Thanks for posting this topic! Last year I had kind bees. This year I have had guard bees hunt me down in my yard far from the hives (and I have 1 acre). It was so bad I could get outside work done. I love the netting idea. I put them In “bee Jail” when I could catch them (a container with a lid). Fortunately, things have calmed down recently. I appreciate all your posts as they are informative and timely!

  • Thanks for sharing your knowledge Rusty. You always come up with answers to my questions about our bee girls. Sadly, lost my mentor to the horrendous politics of our times & now depend on you to help. Gonna purchase a bug net. Excellent idea & I would do the same as you & not kill that little girl buzzing me. I know the commercial beeks think a hobbyist like myself is ridiculous for saving a bee but my conscious always wins out. After all, the renegade bee girl is just doing her job. ✌&❤ from NEPA Lynn A.

  • Bees have to go back to the hive to give the other bees directions. If you suddenly appear in the middle of one of their ‘roadways’ it confuses them. They aren’t harassing anyone, they are simply trying to ‘map’ you. If you move they will follow. I’ve found that it’s best to standstill and let them memorize you. But if you must move just sit down where you are and they will go back to the road that they mapped before you rudely blocked traffic. 🙂

    • Kim,

      I disagree that a honey bee is simply mapping you because you are blocking traffic. If a bee decides to go after someone or something, it most definitely will. Having one wait outside your door all night and into the next day is quite unsettling and goes way beyond “mapping.”

  • At least in the Southeast, we have large carpenter bees that look much like our big bumblebees except one has hairy legs — I think the bumblebee to collect pollen. All carpenter bees seem to act “aggressive” hovering around an area (or you) for extended periods, but only the females have stingers (book learning only). To tell male from the stinging female, you must look them in the eyes if they will hold in pattern long enough. Seriously, the female has a large (1/8″) white spot between her eyes or on the forehead — you decide. You don’t want her to sting you.

    • Rich,

      If you are referring to the common eastern carpenter bee, Xylocopa virginica, there are a couple of things to know. First off, both female carpenter bees and female bumble bees have hairy legs. The bumble bee carries pollen in a ball-shaped bundle, much like a honey bee. The female carpenter carries it in puffy masses on her hind legs, but not in a ball. Second, it’s the male carpenter bee that has a white spot on its face, not the female, so you have that backward.

      Also, just to be clear, no male bees sting. It’s the egg-laying part of a bee that’s been modified over time into a stinging device. With no egg-laying parts, the males have been left out.

  • I’m surprised to hear that it’s male bumble bees that behave like this. I always thought it was queens.

    I remember many years ago I was running around a school track and a large black and yellow BB (probably a B. vosnesenskii) started circling me in what I perceived to be tighter and tighter circles. At that time, I was super afraid of bees, so of course I ran screaming like a banshee with arms waving toward my car. The bee pursued me the whole way.

    In later years when I was working in my pollinator garden and a bumble bee would do this, I would just go and stand next to the house so it couldn’t circle me. It worked pretty well.

    • Hi Nancy,

      When you think about their life cycle, bumble bee queens are super busy. After emergence, they need to find a nesting spot, build the nest, lay some eggs, keep them warm, and feed the first batch of larvae. They probably don’t have time for acts of intimidation. Males, on the other hand, are always on the make.

      The other thing is that the circling goes on throughout the season, long after the queens are all sequestered in their nests.

      Thanks for writing. I’m super-happy to hear from you since I frequently wonder what you’re up to. Take care.

  • Well, the conifers only saved me for a while today. After working my hives, I go back to my truck, put the smoker and paraphernalia away, and gratefully shed the bee suit. Then, I go back with my phone, stand near the hives and make voice memos about each one as my note-taking method. At the last hive, TOB objected to my presence, so I did my usual duck and weave through the evergreens. Feeling smug and confident, I emerged about 20’ from the hive, 180 degrees from where I had disappeared, and WHAM – she came at me like a little kamikaze and nailed me on the cheekbone. My yell and swearing was captured on the voice memo which gave me a laugh when I listened to it on my drive home. That one bee, indeed.

  • Thank you for your common sense advice! Best part was if you ignore, or admire them, leave them alone, vs freaking out, swatting, spraying poison, etc. you will be fine, and worse case you get stung. Unless you are allergic, you will survive. Honey bees are necessary to our food chain, so let them live!!

  • Male carpenter bees act territorial too, and look like bumble bees with a white face but they have no stinger, just cool to watch, or hold!!

  • Yes!
    I was teaching a class of Beginners Beekeeping, and randomly mentioned that I get bees, wasps and hoverflies dive bomb my head and thought it may be the red and back stripes in my hair… we popped out of the classroom on a break and I forgot I was standing under the bee hotel and I got chased up the gardens to a raucous laughter of my students!

  • Last week we split two hives into a third, of course wearing our full suits, and then vacated the yard. The next day, THAT bee had it out for any human in the area. The way I convinced her to leave me alone, was to mist the air above and around me with the garden hose. I always keep it handy with the hand sprayer on for quick protection. Bees apparently don’t like mist.

  • Hi Rusty, as always, fantastic column. Finding a new one is always a treat. Be careful if you’re moving away from a crowd of TOBs that have decided to go for you into the woods… I tried to shake some off while in my suit and the branches pushed the veil close to my face and BOOM one got me right through! Now when moving away I remember to keep my veil in hand so it can’t get pushed close enough that a lady can get me 🙂

    Question: in the photo of the digger bee, there appears to be a shiny spot on her thorax. Is it a mite? What other species are affected by varroa? Thanks!

    • In the photo of the digger bee, I think you are referring to the tegula. It is a dome-shaped structure that covers and protects the base of the fore wings. All bees have two on their thorax.

      There are an endless number of bee mites, but varroa mites only affect honey bees. The life cycle of the varroa is adapted to that of the honey bee so they mesh together perfectly. Most mites are not so harmful to bees as varroa. They are mainly a nuisance in the way fleas bother a dog…unpleasant but usually not life-threatening. I often see mites on solitary bees, but I can’t name most. I’m familiar with a few that ride on bumble bees and mason bees.

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