Whether you live in an Africanized honey bee zone or not, it is important to monitor your bees temperament. Find out what you should observe about your bees’ behavior, how to keep it under control and what to do when things get out of hand.
What’s the deal with “Africanized” bees?
Humans have been keeping honey bees for at least ten thousand years and our influences have selected for certain traits: honey production, gentleness, heartiness. There are many subspecies of honey bees which were separated by region, but because of importing it is difficult to find pure versions of these lineages. This is especially true in the Americas because we have no native honey bees; they were imported here from Europe in the 1600’s and are highly hybridized now. Each subspecies or more loosely referred to as as “race” has their own set of characteristics and behavioral traits. Africanized honey bees are the product of a breeding program in Brazil in the 1950’s. A biologist was breeding European honey bees with African ones for better honey production, but the resulting bees were also much more defensive. These “Africanized” colonies were accidentally allowed to swarm and since have spread all over South America and the southern United States.
Africanized honey bees do not look physically different from European ones and can only be identified in a laboratory. Since Africanized bees have been populating these areas for many years, most of the feral colonies have some percentage of Africanized genes and this results in colonies with varying degrees of defensiveness. Their temprement is a gray scale that ranges from docile to downright murderous. This hybridized race of bees continues to spread north, but is somewhat limited by climate. Africanized bees do not overwinter well because they tend to swarm more often and this depletes the honey store needed to survive in cold climates. Despite the unpleasant temperament, Africanized honey bees possess some positive traits. They tend to be better foragers and they are much more resistant to disease and parasites.
How “hot” are my bees?
Describing your bees as “Africanized” is a little bit of a trigger word, so around these parts, beekeepers will often say their bees are getting “hot” to describe an increase in defensiveness even though this change is probably due to their bees mating with Africanized drones. What most new beekeepers don’t realize is that their hive’s genetics is not static. It is constantly evolving. When you buy a starter colony with an Italian queen, at some point that queen will leave with a swarm or she may fall ill and be replaced by the bees. You may not always know when this happens. Your new queen will be the daughter of your old queen, but the eggs she lays will contain genetic material all the different males she mates with. So, when you live in an Africanized zone and this happens, your new queen is going to mate with whatever riffraff drones are in the area and its likely that some of them will be Africanized. In my experience, this is sometimes a good thing. Maybe your new queen will retain her docile genetics, but pick up some of the stronger qualities like greater mite resistance. Other times your new queen might begin to exhibit defensive behaviors that can be a cause for concern in urban settings.
What to look for…
Each beekeeper has a unique tolerance level for defensiveness and different spacial limitations. Consider how comfortable you are working your bees and also how safe it is to have them in your particular setting. If you are a new beekeeper, you might not be up for working even a moderately hot colony. If you have a tight yard space or neighbors nearby you may also be limited in terms of safety. More experienced beekeepers may be happy to trade gentleness for mite resistance and if they have adequate space they needn’t worry about bystanders getting stung. Keep in mind that Africanized bees may exhibit defensive behavior at a distance of 50ft from the hive or greater!
The first measure of a colony’s disposition is how they react to you before you disturb them.
Walk up to your hive, do they send guard bees to investigate you? Unless you are standing in their flight path or less than 5ft from their entrance, most colonies will not perceive you as a threat. Colonies that chase or sting just because you are near them are usually on the high end of the scale in terms of how Africanized they are. This is where I draw the line. If my bees are attacking me unprovoked, I often make the decision to requeen them.
The second measure is how they react when you open the hive.
When you remove the cover, do your bees immediately fly up and begin to buzz you? Do they fly, but only to make lazy circles around you? Or do they pretty much stay put? Many new beekeepers interpret any increase in buzzing or flying to be an indication of aggression, but this is often incorrect. If you have difficulty reading your bees’ mood, pay attention to speed. Angry bees tend to zip quickly through the air, sometimes even bouncing off your veil. Extremely agitated bees will cluster around your head. They react to your carbon dioxide and tend to go towards your face. You may even see some cling to the mesh and press their abdomens into it in an attempt to sting. If you wave your hand across the top of your open hive and bees rush up to attack your hand, your bees are not happy to see you. Sometimes, when a guard bee is trying to make up their mind about you, they will lazily scan your body, tying in a zig zag pattern up and down. Sometimes they decide you are not a threat and leave, other times they increase their speed and concentrate their efforts close to your face.
The deeper you go into your hive and the longer you have it open often correlates with how agitated your bees will become. Often I can inspect even hot hives without incident if I am only checking the uppermost super, but if I wish to look deeper they will start to get grumpy. It’s important to observe your bees’ behavior and try to understand what it means. Each colony is different and will have different triggers, moods and reactions. If you are familiar with what these are you can often avoid incidents of aggression and/or correct them before they start.
The last measure is how the bees act after you disturb them.
After you have completed your inspection and closed the hive back up, how far do the bees follow you? It is said that European honey bees will not follow more than 25ft, but Africanized bees have been known to chase a person as far as a mile. Personally, the docile European colonies I manage rarely follow me more than 10ft, if they follow me at all. Most of my wild colonies (Africanized hybrids) will not chase further than 25ft, but I have been chased as a far as 100ft by aggressive colonies on several occasions. These more aggressive colonies will remain agitated for days after an inspection, often patrolling the yard and terrorizing anyone who comes near them.
Making excuses for your bees…
There are some legitimate reasons for why your colony might react defensively that does not have anything to do with genetics. Learn what these factors are and consider whether any of them are at play when you have an incident with your bees.
Smoke-If your bees start buzzing and stinging you and you didn’t use your smoker… use your smoker!
Weather- Honey bees are prone to mood swings and many of them are related to weather conditions. You should avoid opening your hives on days that are cool, wet or windy. Bees are definitely fair-weather friend.
Nectar Dearths- Do you know someone who gets grumpy when they are hungry? Bees are no different. When flowers are hard to find and the nectar stops flowing, bees are more likely to become agitated. So, if you open your once sweet colony in the fall and find that they are in a rage… don’t worry, they are probably just hangry.
Queenlessness- One of the signs of a queenless colony is agitation. You should always double check that your queen is alive and well during an inspection by confirming the presence of eggs.
Overcrowded- Sometimes, if you let a colony becomes overcrowded they will also become easier to annoy. Make sure you give your bees the space they need in the spring and summer!
Rough Handling- Take care not to bang or knock your hive during inspections. I have seen some appallingly rough beekeepers work their hives without a care as to whether they are smashing bees or mashing combs. Move slowly and calmly while working your hives and do your best not to squish anyone and the bees will like you better!
Smells, colors and mouth breathers- I warn all my beekeeping students not to eat bananas before attending one of my hands-on classes. That’s because they smell very similar to the bees’ alarm pheromone. I have seen colonies send and keep guards on just one student while the rest of us remain bee free just because that person had a banana for breakfast. Ever wonder why bee suits are white? Well, bees evolved to perceive dark colored animals as a threat. Think bears. Beekeepers joke that they must take care not to have bad breath before inspecting their hives, but this likely comes from the bees’ tendency to react to the carbon dioxide we expel. The bees have learned that their mammalian predators are more vulnerable near the mouth/face and when they smell it on our breath they send bees in that direction!
*One trigger I did not mention, but that is specific to Africanized bees is motorized landscaping tools. Some Africanized bees will react very defensively to the vibrations made by lawn mowers, tractors etc. They also tend to attack if you weed by hand near their hive. I have had colonies that were tolerant of me during inspections, go into a rage over these activities. For me, I’d rather keep the bees and avoid the using these tools than requeen otherwise sweet bees. Worst case scenario, you end up mowing your yard in a bee suit.
How to Handle a Hot Hive
First, you should heed all the triggers listed above because even if your colony is acting defensively without them, you can always make it worse. That said, if you start to inspect your hive and they begin to show signs of agitation that you are not comfortable with either because of your skill level or because of your proximity to neighbors, close up the hive. Just close them up and come back to inspect another day. Don’t panic and leave your hive open. This will just prolong the amount of time it takes them to calm down. If you find that you are getting stung, you can leave the hive ope temporarily so you can quickly fix the weakness in your suit, but then you should return to close them up. If after you close them up, your bees are patrolling the yard and following you a great distance, you should warn anyone who might be close enough to be in their range. I often give my bees a couple of chances before deciding that they need to be requeened. If you have single incident and then the following inspection goes well, it may have been a fluke. If, however, you have had multiple incidents or perhaps one major one, you should requeen your hive. Requeening a defensive colony is challenging and tips on how to do this successfully really merits it’s own post. You can review the basic concepts of requeening in my how to video.