Have you ever wondered why one hive may act differently than others? Or maybe why your once gentle hive is suddenly out to sting anything that moves?
Hive temperament can be somewhat subjective (as some people are more tolerant of froggy bees than others), however, there is generally variation from one hive to the other. Each hive has its own unique attributes that will result in each colony’s behavior being unique. However, there are several conditions that can affect behavior.
What is normal hive temperament?
Before we begin, it’s important to recognize normal hive temperament. Again, each colony will differ to some degree. In general, your colony should be gentle during the mid-summer when the weather is warm, sunny, and there are plenty of nectar-producing flowers.
During inspections, when conditions are optimal, the bees should essentially ignore you as you walk in front of the hive, perform inspections, etc. This is when they should be their best behaved.
Naturally, we enjoy keeping bees that are docile and tolerate hive inspections. Keeping aggressive bees is simply not fun!
So, what causes mean bees or sudden behavior changes? Let’s take a look at some of the roots of change:
- Predation and robbing
- Frequent hive inspections
- Time of day
- Rough handling
- No smoker
Bees like bright, warm, wind-free days. Hives should not be opened in the rain, or when temperatures below 55 degrees F. When it is overly windy or storms are moving in, bees will not be as welcoming.
Bees may be more easily agitated during periods of extreme heat.
Bees navigate by UV rays and their orientation to the sun. On cloudy days, bees are not able to navigate, which can make them a little cantankerous. On cloudy days, it’s best to leave the bees alone.
Similar to cloudy days, bees are not able to see at night. Therefore, they will attack light sources and movement. While it is safe to walk by the hive at night, never open the hive! You’ll be greeted en masse by unhappy bees.
This is probably the main cause of sudden temperament changes. Two weeks ago your bees were sweet as can be, and today they are bouncing off your veil.
During the nectar flow, there are plenty of resources. In the bees mind, if you were to take some honey, it would not be a huge deal. They can just go get more nectar. However, during the dearth, the bees cannot replace losses and suddenly become very protective of their honey.
Predation & Robbing
Bees will become defensive when they are pressured by predators like skunks. They are also edgier when they are being robbed. If your colony behavior changes suddenly and you’ve ruled out these other possible causes, consider the possibility of predators or robbing.
During the dearth, it’s important to use your veil and gloves, and at a minimum, and use your smoker.
Genetics may be the source of the bees aggression. In areas with Africanized bees, you may have a “hot” colony. You may also just have a queen that makes crabby daughters.
I had a colony with a queen that was just M-E-A-N! I dreaded working that hive because I knew the chances of being stung was high. Fortunately, the fix is simple — just requeen.
Frequent Hive Inspections
It can be challenging to contain your enthusiasm and curiosity when it comes to your bees. However, they should not be inspected more than every 10 to 14 days. Each time you open the hive, you break propolis seals and interrupt internal operation which takes the bees some time to recover. Over-inspection will result in grumpy bees.
Time of Day
Early in the morning and in the afternoon, there are more bees in the hive. Waiting until midday when the foragers are out of the hive reduces the in hive population by about 30%, and will decrease the likelihood of bees becoming upset.
Bees don’t like vibrations, so things that cause vibrations are sure to disturb them. Things like mowing are the common culprit. Your best bet is to hand-pull weeds around the hive, try mowing at night, or wear your suit when mowing in front of the hives.
Have you ever dropped a frame? In addition to the embarrassment, you’ll probably find that the bees don’t appreciate the jostle and may show some aggression. Moving hive bodies or frames aggressively, dropping your hive tool on the top of the frames, or setting boxes on the ground abruptly can all annoy the bees. When working your hive, move slowly and methodically to reduce vibrations.
Do you know how a smoker works, and the proper way to use one? A smoker interrupts the bees pheromone communication. When a bee becomes aware of a threat, she releases a pheromone to notify her sisters. This group of bees then seeks to neutralize the threat.
A smoker masks the pheromone released by an aggravated bee, so her sisters cannot smell them and also become alerted.
It is important to always have your lit smoker available. If you chose not to use it, that is up to the individual. However, if the bees become agitated, the smoker will help keep the situation from getting worse.
Be sure not to over-smoke your colony either.
What to do when your bees become aggressive?
When your bees become aggravated, it is best to try and determine the cause. If you are able to figure out why they are upset, you can possibly fix the problem, or at least understand the reason.
Sometimes, the bees are just too crabby to work with. When this happens, you just need to close the hive, walk away and try again later.
Nicole Gennetta is a beekeeper in southern Colorado and owner of HeritageAcresMarket.com and the Backyard Bounty Podcast — resources for beekeeping, raising chickens, and sustainable living. Learn more about Nicole.