Calm bees

calm-beesPeople sometimes ask, how can I keep my bees calm? Particularly when I open a hive?

This post covers this aspect of beekeeping. The common theme is that the bees do not feel threatened.

Top tip

After a couple of years I stopped opening my hives frequently, and treating them with irritant miticides, and my bees calmed right down. They no longer associated me with a threat. This is probably why I find colonies from random swarms are sweet natured, where some beekeepers claim they are variable in temperament.

Your own behaviour

It helps a lot if you’re calm, so:

  • Move slowly and gently. No hurry.
  • Chat to the bees if it calms you. There is a tradition that you must tell them family news or they will abscond!
  • Talking loudly near hives sometimes alarms guards.
  • I find that since getting a fancy Mann Lake vented bee suit I am no longer worried about stings – they can’t get through. This makes me a lot calmer, I make fewer errors and the bees are calmer. Full protection for nervous or new beekeepers is vital, and remember to tuck your trousers into your wellies, as bees on the ground crawl up your legs. Some people are so calm they need no protection, but I’ve had a couple of minor anaphylactic reactions so I need to be careful.
  • Plan out what you are going to do and have all tools nearby so the operation can be done as quickly as possible.
  • Bees will usually try to warn you off before they sting by flying at your face and buzzing loudly at a higher pitch. But the very loudest buzzing is harmless drones – they are stingless, they’re just huge and need to work hard to get airborne. Observe a hive to learn what a drone sounds like so you don’t get panicked by one bumbling past.
  • If you are not wearing a veil they can get stuck in your hair and are more likely to sting, perhaps they feel they are trapped in a web.
  • Don’t get in their way by standing in their bee line, the maximum traffic zone directly in front of the entrance.
  • Low contrast clothing probably helps. Bee eyes are sensitive to “edges” and movement. So if the bees begin buzzing loudly and diving at you, freeze, don’t swat at them. Usually they will lose interest after 20-30 seconds as if you are invisible. If you are unprotected and worried, some advise you should run away and then freeze in shadows.

General advice

  • Swarms are very docile, but occasionally change a week after hiving once they have brood to defend, so maintain respect once hived.

    Swarms are very docile, but occasionally change a week after hiving once they have brood to defend, so maintain respect once hived.

    Opening hives after mid morning is best, to maximise the number of foragers away from the hive.

  • The best weather to open a hive is: warm, sunny, dry, no wind. Basically so there is little difference between conditions inside the hive and out. A sweltering 30C day is ideal.
  • Bees dislike rain, wind, and cold air in the hive.
  • Never open a hive if rain is imminent. They’ll be on edge, and there will be loads more bees than usual in there. They particularly hate being exposed when a thunderstorm is impending.
  • Avoid chilling the brood comb (generally near the entrance, and covered with a thick mat of nurse bees) by overexposure to cool air or wind.
  • Use a cloth or other barrier to cover bars you are not immediately working on, to avoid loss of heat and scent.
  • Colonies can change temperament in a day if they are stressed by: attacking wasps or rival robbing bees – these will be visible; starvation (heft the hive to determine if it is light); sometimes queenlessness. (Starvation and queenlessness may alternatively result in apathy and lack of activity.) A quick test for queenlessness is, put your ear to the hive wall so you hear them bustling around. Give the hive a sharp rap with your knuckles: a queen-right hive will roar for a moment then return to normal, a queenless one is disordered and roars for almost 30 seconds.
  • Sometimes the cause isn’t obvious. I’ve known one set of 3 hives that were furious in one field but fine when moved miles away, we never found out why.
  • Vibration, such as from heavy traffic annoys some hives and the only cure may be moving the hive.
  • Don’t knock hives unnecessarily.
  • Sometimes it’s necessary to move bees from one box to another – say, when shaking bees out of a super or hiving a swarm. Doing this on a cool evening helps because they are not inclined to fly around, they want to join their fellows in a warm box before it gets dark. This does not mean you can be reckless near a hive after dark and, say, remove weeds near it – guard bees can still sense you, they are just less inclined to leave the entrance.
  • Many beekeepers are convinced their bees recognise them (perhaps by smell) and behave differently to them than towards other humans. They may recognise you either as friend or foe, depending on their experiences with you. Workers only live about 6 weeks in summer so if you find they are getting very upset by your constant meddling, leave them alone for a few weeks and their behaviour should reset to default.

Examples

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Smells

Bees are very sensitive to scents and, particularly, changes in them. This has a number of consequences –

  • Avoid strong smells like perfume and particularly bananas round hives.
  • I usually shower before opening one, bees don’t like stale sweat. They are however attracted to fresh sweat which is full of vital minerals, and like to drink it – which tickles – so don’t panic if you find a bee tickling you with its tongue.
  • Avoid crushing even one bee if possible, it will release alarm pheromone (which smells like bananas) and the others will become agitated.
  • If you do get a sting in your clothing, it will waft alarm pheromone into the air to tell other bees “sting here, it’s a threat”. This is liable to increase the perceived hive threat level to DEFCON 1 and an escalation of tension. Remove the sting and mask the smell with smoke or a strong smell like peppermint. The bees won’t like that either, but it is better than alarm pheromone. This is one reason to wash your clothing and to use disposable gloves (the other is disease transmission).
  • Don’t blow or breathe into the hive. It upsets the scents in the hive and, they smell mammal breath, which is perceived as a threat. Blowing into a hive can result in hundreds of bees boiling out buzzing loudly!
  • Beware crushing plants near a hive, some release pungent sap.
  • I’m becoming increasingly convinced that bees aren’t so much sensitive to a particular smell, as put on edge by a sudden change in any smell around them. So I’m going to change my sting-masking peppermint spray to something less sharp and pungent, I’ll try and find something that smells more like a hive or honey. Unfortunately propolis will stain clothing – I’ll experiment with very dilute essential oils.
  • Hot smoke and acrid smoke hurts them. Lavender smoke is said to calm bees.
  • Don’t over-smoke. If using a smoker, use a couple of gentle puffs in the entrance and some more on top of the hive, then wait a minute while you smoke your own clothing – use just enough to mask smells.

Hot hives and genetics

Sometimes a colony is always too defensive for a beginner; occasionally even experienced beekeepers are scared! Assuming it’s not something you can fix by removing a stress factor (a couple of years ago I had to find and kill 11 wasp nests before they stopped robbing my hives), you may need to intervene drastically. Options include:

  • Ask the advice of other beekeepers. They may spot something you did not.
  • Kill the queen and re-queen with another one from a gentle hive. I’ve done this. These days I am more interested in preserving local strains and would instead:
  • Kill the queen and let them supersede (raise their own queen). This preserves half the vigorous genetics of the colony, and lets the new queen mate with local drones. This isn’t guaranteed to eliminate the aggressiveness, and will knock the colony back several weeks so forget about a honey crop this year, and the new queen may not mate and the colony could die; but it’s what I would do now. Bear in mind the old queen may not have had ‘hot’ genetics, it may just have been one of the dozen or so drone-fathers she mated with, and healthy local queens are worth propagating.
  • In extreme situations, sometimes you have to kill an entire colony. This can be done in a variety of ways but probably the best is spraying with soapy water, which can be washed out of a hive afterwards. This is very rare, I’ve only heard of one occurrence: an experienced beekeeper collected a swarm last year from an area notorious for hot swarms. It was agitated when collected, and once hived that evening it began attacking a nearby hive(?!) and her. There was something deeply wrong and unmanageable with these bees. After ringing round for advice she killed it immediately, it was the only way to save the other hive (and humans who were due to arrive in the area in the morning). It was a disturbing experience.
  • Give the colony away to an experienced beekeeper with a remote out-apiary away from humans. I’ve done this. Energetic colonies like these tend to be very healthy, good at making honey and have no trouble with predators like wasps!

In my next article, angry bees, I’ll discuss those colonies which are genetically predisposed to over-defensive behaviour.

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