beekeepers honey bee behavior miscellaneous musings

You are a stranger to your bees

Last year a beekeeper told me that his bees were getting used to him. He said that as the summer progressed they had “accepted” him as their keeper and they “realized” he was only trying to help. Furthermore, he claimed they became more docile every time he opened the hive.

This is a heartwarming story. It is also totally ridiculous. Although bees are heavy into consensus-building, they do not normally include the welfare of humans in their agenda. And even if an individual bee perceived a human as a non-threatening organism, that bee is only going to live four weeks or so. By the time the beekeeper re-opens the hive he is faced with a completely different cohort. These bees have never seen the beekeeper before—and I doubt they leave messages for each other taped to the refrigerator.

A colony of bees varies in its aggressiveness depending on a number of factors. Colonies that have gone queenless, have been pestered by animals, or are exposed to high levels of noise may be skittish and temperamental. Colonies at the end of winter, in the midst of a nectar flow, or in the act of swarming may seem unnaturally calm. These fluctuations in behavior can be helpful clues as to what is taking place inside the hive.

My point here is that a good beekeeper is constantly assessing clues to colony health and making decisions based on the information he has. Changing temperament is a clue to things that are happening within the colony. A good beekeeper should make use of this information instead of deluding himself into thinking he has become one with his bees.

Of course, that said, this past weekend I delivered a nuc of bees to a friend. In the course of inspecting the hives, her bees stung me . . . and my bees walked across my hands as if we were pals (which, perhaps, we were!) Soooo, what is going on here?



  • I agree. Assigning human cognitave abilities to insects is silly at best, and could be a potentially dangerous activity. But perhaps your scent can be “remembered” by the colony in a pangenerational way. I have no idea what mechanism a single bee or a colony of bees could employ to accomplish such “memory”.

    “It’s a Mystery.” cried Benny.

    [A little Boxcar Children metaphor, there.]

    • Chelsea,

      I did too, but I’m told I get a little too sarcastic sometimes, so I try to tone it down.

  • She can sparkle like the moonlight on the river,
    At times her words can cut you like a knife,
    She’s got a way of being tough and tender,
    But she’ll always be the highlight of my life.

    Sometimes she’s hotter than the thirty-first of August,
    And colder than a February morn,
    But Heaven knows I’m always more than willing,
    To hold that ever-changing woman in my arms.

    There’s days she almost loves me down to nothing,
    Then turns around and hates my very soul,
    So I always wear a T-shirt and a jacket,
    Just in case that woman’s running hot to cold.

    Ever Changing Women by Merle Haggard

  • I was told an old beek’s trick re bees getting to know your smell. Simply take a well worn vest/t-shirt and place it in the hive that seems to be very aggressive towards you, place the garment above the cover board and under the roof for a week. The bees get to know you and the scent – hey presto happy bees.

    Does it work? dunno 🙂 but I would be interested in feedback from anyone giving it a go.


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