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Mean Bees

By: Chari Elam

Why are my bees so mean? We can laugh at that statement, but how many of you have wondered that very thing? Do my bees just hate me, or is it something else? Honestly, if you’ve been keeping bees any amount of time in ANY location, you’ve experienced nasty bees. Could it be you? Well…maybe. I know, that’s hard to swallow, but it could be true! Our bees have pretty good memories when it gets down to it. They do remember the guy or gal in the big white suit! You’re the one that comes in and creates havoc every time you enter their home! I’d put money on the fact that if it happened to you, you’d remember that too! So, now we know, we could be one of the reasons our bees are mean. Let’s dissect that shall we?

New beekeepers are almost “required” to go in and check out how things are going more often than normal. BUT, when we as instructors say it’s OK to go into your bees a bit more frequently in the beginning so you can learn, we mean within the bounds of reason. Once a week for a new beekeeper is fine for the first few weeks, but then I’d encourage you back off and go in half that much (every other week) as time progresses. Years ago, we had a mentee that was continuously going Queenless. We kept getting calls from this new beekeeper saying, “I need a queen; mine is gone or dead.” We couldn’t figure out why in the world that hive was losing 2 queens a month on a brand new colony! Well, come to find out, every other day this enthusiastic beekeeper was going in the hive and pulling frames looking around; just taking the time to enjoy watching the bees and trying to learn their ways. In doing this, what do you think happened? Yep, the queen was killed or injured to the point she would die. This was so unfortunate because no harm was meant at all.

Note to self for new beekeepers – Beekeepers can be the #1 cause of queen demise. Lesson learned…only go in when you have a reason and limit it to the hive check schedule or inspection schedule to minimize your bees “hating you” because you are an “intruder!” Another reason your bees could be mean may be your bee suit! No, no…it’s not how dirty it is, but it could definitely be residual “alarm pheromone!” If you’ve done a major hive inspection or a split and you’ve had multiple stingers stuck in your suit (we all have), the alarm pheromone can very definitely stay with that suit for a while!

I recommend washing your bee suit regularly. I typically don’t go to any great lengths with cleaning concoctions, but just a good quality clothes detergent and a hot dryer works fine. Yes, I dry our suits in the dryer. I’ve heard many that don’t, but I’ve not seen a real difference in the longevity of the suit over the years as opposed to line drying. Of course, I don’t dry the veil in the dryer because it will take the color out of the screen and possibly melt the mesh.

By a show of hands, who’s done that? Go ahead, raise your hand…mine's up too! What about using smoke? Are you smoking properly when you enter a hive? I can tell you from experience, the lack of smoke can definitely make for an angry hive. Each time you begin your hive entry, smoke the entrance a couple of times, lift the lid, and add a couple more puffs of smoke. Then, if while you’re doing your inspection the bees begin to get agitated, give them a few more puffs. Staying on top of smoking will ALWAYS help keep their agitation level down.

Have you ever heard a seasoned beekeeper use the term “fluid motion?” If we go into our hives banging around, bumping on the side, talking loudly and basically just “bull in a china cabinet” approach, your bees will NOT be nice to you for it! It's very important to use fluid motions while working our hives. We tell our mentees work quickly, smoothly and with purpose. Those are three very good descriptive words for how we are to work bees each and every time we go in. Get in and get out, but do it with grace, finesse and with “fluid motions!” 

OK, now that I’ve made YOU responsible for your mean bees, how bout’ we blame something else – Nature! There are several reasons beyond our control of why our bees could be mad. I think most of you could name at least 3…

Summer Dearth = hot and hungry bees. Definitely a reason for agitation. We minimize our hive inspections during dearth for that very reason.

Predators – Overnight a raccoon or opossum may keep milling around your bees night after night, bumping the box and sticking their nose where it doesn’t belong causing the bees to stay on edge. We are unaware of it because it’s happening during the night; but come daylight your bees are edgy, and you can’t imagine why! Look for tracks to determine if it is a predator, or put up a game camera and catch them in the act! Sprinkling some cayenne pepper on the ground around the hives could be enough of a deterrent to keep them away, or, if worse comes to worst, use a small varmint trap to trap them and carry them off somewhere where “they” can live in peace. More like, your bees can live in peace!

Robbing! – Any of us that have experienced robbing can attest to the total chaos post-robbing frenzy. Our rule of thumb, stop the robbing as fast as you can and leave them bee! These girls have been through a very traumatic experience and are not happy about it!

Season and weather changes – This can and WILL make bees a bit on the testy side. I’ve read many articles about how bees aren’t much different than other animals in responding to not only barometric pressure changes but also seasonal changes. Consider this, if you are experiencing sensitivity to these changes then more than likely so are your bees! A good example – the day before hurricane Laura hit, We strapped down some of our hives to prepare for possible high winds and “they lit me up!” Ironically, our chickens were acting all nutty as well! See, it’s not just bees…

Probably one of the most common reasons our bees will show signs of aggression is because of Queen issues. Whether it’s because they are queenless or bad genetics, the queen (or the lack thereof) can really make these girls mad. If you walk up to a colony and hear a low roar before you even crack the lid, you’ll want to be diligent with your smoker and dig around (well suited up) and find out why. Odds are, you’ve lost a queen. Bad genetics can also change the temperament of a hive within a short brood cycle. It is very common for a colony to re-queen and you not even know it happened until all of a sudden no matter the time of day or year, the bees are just mean. Come to find out, this “homegrown” queen mated with some “homegrown” boys and in most of Texas this can be a problem. Without the guarantee of a quality genetically stocked drone congregation area, your drones can carry Africanized tendencies. That doesn’t necessarily mean your bees are Africanized, it just means they may have some of the tendencies…aka: mean bees!

The answer = Re – Queen! Once you’ve identified the reason your bees are mean or “just don’t like you,” take the appropriate actions to change it. Beekeeping is fun! We don’t have to put up with mean bees…at least we have options!

Mated Queens!

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