When the going gets tough, the tough get angry. When nature is having a hard time, she lashes out. The same goes for honey bees, as they can turn aggressive too. When they do so, it’s usually because they are going through some kind of hardship.
Alternatively, in times of plenty, they’ll endure your visits with a calm and friendly greeting.
When things get tough, they’ll let you know. But that’s not all that sets them off. Let’s look at some of the main reasons why bees get aggressive.
11 Main Causes for Aggressive Honey Bees
As an experienced beekeeper, I have encountered many aggressive hives and angry bees in my day. This type of behavior is normal and to be expected as you progress in your journey.
I frequently work with both beginner and intermediate beekeepers who have trouble figuring out a bee’s aggressive behavior. I’ve done my best to lay out all the reasons which cause honey bees to become angry.
By understanding these reasons, I feel confident that you’ll be able to pinpoint the cause so you can quickly remedy your aggressive hive!
Sometimes, the apple simply falls right under the tree. Usually, aggression is cyclic, and the colony will only be aggressive and testy at certain times of the year. This period is usually very brief.
However, if you notice that your colony is steadily getting more aggressive than when you first got them, regardless of the season, then aggression could be running through their bee blood.
If the colony has swarmed after initiating a new queen, or you introduced a locally bred queen, then you are exposing yourself to the risk of hosting an aggressive colony.
In the case of swarming or a queen’s death, the new queen bee will mate with whatever drones happen to be at the mating spot.
Naturally, you don’t have any control over what drones will be hanging around, hollering at pretty young queens.
If these drones come from aggressive bee species, they’ll pass such aggressive genes to their offspring, and you end up with grumpy bees.
2. Lack of a Bee Smoker or Using One Incorrectly
During hive inspections, beekeepers use smokers the same way the Secret Service uses signal jammers, or so I’ve heard.
The smoke interrupts the alarm pheromone and causes the bees to fill up on honey. Smokers calm bees, making them much easier to work around.
Too much smoke or too little can cause the bees to get agitated. Not having a smoker at all can be a huge mistake.
When you open up a hive, and you hear a loud hum, that’s the equivalent of a siren. The greater the hum, the faster the alarm pheromones travel. If you have a very docile colony, you might get away with it, but it simply isn’t worth the risk.
3. Nectar Dearth
Being hungry is always an excuse for our industrious friends to be cranky bees. Have you ever been “hangry” before? For bees, even when they have enough honey, they get paranoid.
All bees are not created equal. Some honey bee colonies may either have too many mouths to feed or too little honey stored in their pantry. Honey then becomes a very precious commodity, and the last thing the bees want is visitors.
It gets so bad that they throw their brother drones out to ensure that their stores get them through to the next blooming season.
So you’ll notice that you get pretty aggressive bee behavior if you approach the hive during this period.
4. Clumsy Beekeepers
When we are new to beekeeping, we can be a little sloppy. You crush bees unnecessarily as you bang frames when you’re trying to take them out or replace them.
New beekeepers particularly fear bee stings, often working with quick movements that are often jerky and unsteady. When a bee makes contact with its sting anywhere on your body, your arms start flailing, causing the bee colony to feel threatened and turn on defensive behavior.
Handling bees is like dancing with a partner. If you’re nervous, you’re likely to hurt the other party, which causes them to get even right there on the dance floor.
Idle hands, or in this case, legs, are the devil’s workshop, and the devil can be mean.
The queen’s pheromones help to unify the colony, and everyone understands their role.
Without a queen there to release that pheromone, the honeybees get restless.
We don’t know exactly why they get so restless, but you can tell that they are not happy every time you check on an open hive.
As mentioned, in times of scarcity, you may encounter mean bees. Sometimes, scarcity is caused by a lack of nectar. Other times, big bad bullies and predators come through the hive and do some damage.
Sometimes, it’s other bees. Italian bees are known for this vice, and they pick on smaller colonies. Now, even though the smaller colonies may lose, they fight to the death.
Once robbing begins, everyone becomes an enemy, even you. They want absolutely nothing to do with you. This, in turn, could be one cause of aggression among your honey bees.
7. Bad Weather
In this case of aggression, we are talking hot and humid. This usually happens when good weather draws to a close in late summer.
It starts to get wet, but the weather is still warm, making it difficult for the bees to cure the honey. I can empathize with them.
Imagine doing everything right, and then factors beyond your control mess with your ability to make your deadline. It’s no wonder they are unhappy.
8. Hive Placement
Sometimes, beekeepers place hives in various locations that are solely for their convenience with no consideration for the comfort of the bees.
If the hive is placed next to a path that enjoys a lot of traffic or is frequented by animals, the bees will be in a constant state of alert.
Bees enjoy the quiet. They could also do without constant movement in front of the entrance of the hive.
This is why we, as beekeepers, are advised to approach hives from the back rather than from the front.
9. The Pantry is Full, and Winter is Coming
What would you do if your life savings were under threat? Fight, of course.
That is what the bees are doing when they get defensive about their loot.
When the weather starts to change, the bees are well aware that the season of plenty is coming to an end.
They have a very valuable asset to protect, and they take that responsibility very seriously.
That honey that they have will make the difference between life and death. It’s no surprise, then, that the bees can get stinger-happy.
10. Growing Numbers
The life cycle of a colony is similar to any organism. They start small, they grow in numbers, and then, at some point, they start to regress.
With bees, the numbers pick up in preparation for spring.
A great workforce is needed to collect pollen and nectar. As the numbers grow, the temperament of the colony can change.
11. Alarm Pheromone on the Bee-Suit
Let’s face it; we don’t like to do laundry. What drives most of us to laundry is social decorum. When we get the opportunity to skip it, of course, we will.
Your bee suit is only worn in the presence of your bees and possibly one beekeeper. So the temptation to keep it unlaundered is very high.
Now, here’s something you may not have considered. Every time you visit your bees, some of the ladies will take their anger out on your full suit. When they do, the sting site is laced with the alarm pheromone.
When you go back for your next visit, it’s possible that the alarm pheromone is still detectable. So even before you open up the hive, the guard bees are already on high alert.
How Long Do Honey Bees Stay Aggressive?
The amount of time that honey bees will remain aggressive depends on the main cause of their anger. That’s why it was important to first discuss the causes of aggression among honey bees so you can begin to narrow down and pinpoint the specific issue.
Although bees usually require a trigger to act and are unlikely to lay siege upon your house unprovoked, having an aggressive colony nearby, say, your back yard is quite risky.
Estimated Time Until Your Hive Calms Down Depending on The Cause of Aggression
If the problem is genetic, then your visits to the hive will continue to get more and more unpleasant as time goes on.
However, if the cause of aggression is environmental, then it’s only a matter of time before they settle down again.
And, if the weather is the reason the bees are agitated, then when temperatures start to cool down, so will their temper.
If the colony is being robbed, putting a stop to that incident will get the temperament of the colony to a more pleasant level. Once the threat has passed, the bees revert to their sweet nature.
Perhaps you may have noticed that the colony had increased its lady-power during the spring and didn’t appreciate your presence. In the fall, when the numbers start to reduce, you’ll get back that gentle colony that you started off with.
If the cause of aggression is caused by the beekeeper, then as soon as you improve your working methods, you will definitely see a difference.
In fact, as you become more confident and at ease with your bees, you move more smoothly when dealing with the hive, and you are less likely to have accidents. That way, you stay on the bees’ good side.
So the short answer to how long your bees will stay angry and act aggressively is, as with most beekeeping questions, it depends. The good news is that their anger doesn’t have to be a permanent situation.
5 Things Beekeepers Can Do to Calm an Aggressive Hive
What do you do with an aggressive hive? Well, there are instances that cause honey bees to be aggressive, which are out of your control, such as the weather or genetics.
Luckily, there are changes you can implement that are within your control. As such, I’ve laid out five proven methods that you can use to calm angry honey bees.
In order for you to be successful in your de-escalating endeavors, it is important to have first narrowed or identified the cause of their aggression. Let’s examine some of the ways that you can calm your honey bees down.
If the queen you received was marked, then the first thing you need to do is try to find her. The marking is usually permanent and doesn’t get rubbed off.
Therefore if you find an unmarked queen in your colony and you notice that the temperament of your colony has been slowly deteriorating, then it may be time to requeen.
If you live in an area that is at risk of Africanization, then you need to order a queen from a trusted breeder. Ensure that you get a mated queen. If not, you might not solve your problem.
2. Feed your Bees
In times of dearth, you may need to help your six-legged friends. Either sacrifice your harvest or provide supplementary syrup.
3. Wash Your Bee Suit
Don’t worry about the stains. Propolis, wax, and honey can create a sticky mess on your suit, and that’s quite alright.
Fortunately, your bee suit isn’t going on the red carpet, so the stains don’t matter.
All you’re trying to do is rid your suit of the alarm pheromone. That can be done with a good soak. Once the smell has been neutralized, it’ll be fit for duty once more.
4. Be Purposeful but Relaxed When Visiting the Hive
When you’re new to beekeeping, one cardinal rule is not to be in a hurry. With time and experience, you will be able to tackle your tasks much faster.
When you feel yourself getting anxious, take a deep breath.
Calming your nerves will help you move smoothly through the hive and reduce the disruption to the bees’ routine. The less disrupted they feel, the easier they are to deal with.
5. Use Robbing Screens and Entrance Reducers
Robbing behavior can be very costly, not just to the victim colony but to you as well. Depending on how strong the robbers are, they can annihilate an entire colony. It’s up to you to protect your bees.
During a nectar dearth, you need to limit the access points robbers can use to get into the hive.
An entrance reducer like this one limits the space available for intruders. It allows the guard bees to inspect incoming traffic more effectively because they have less ground to cover.
Should they detect a bee that doesn’t have that local hive-du-toilet, they are immediately expelled, and a crisis can be averted.
Good robbing screens are similarly effective. Bees usually find their way in and out of a hive by detecting the hive’s scent.
The smell of honey is very attractive to robbers, and they will find their way to the hive, but a robbing screen adds an obstacle for the robbers.
Although they can smell the source, they are unfamiliar with the fixtures and fittings of the hive.
The robbing screen allows the resident bees to move in and out of the hive through a side entrance, which the robbers know nothing about.
The robbers will keep diving headfirst into a mesh and probably won’t take the time to figure out how to get around it.
As an added security feature, avoid opening up the hive during a nectar dearth or when you notice that robbing behavior is on the rise.
Do not put your weaker colonies at risk unless absolutely necessary.
Wrapping Up Dealing with Aggressive Honey Bees
Aggression in honey bees is cyclical. When the environment changes, the ladies can act up a little bit, but they soon settle down, so there’s no real need for alarm.
If you got your bees from a reputable source, genetics are unlikely to be too much of a worry for a year or two at least. Aggression in bees is easily dealt with and is a minor hiccup in your beekeeping journey.
How do you deal with aggressive honey bees? Let me know in the comments below! I’m always looking for new tactics and tricks to add to my arsenal.