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Are my bees too defensive?

How do you decide if your hive is too easily provoked to sting?

If your hive is hyper-defensive, what should you do, or how might you remedy the problem?

If you have asked yourself these questions keep reading! We have some tips below to help you make a determination and take action.

Most beekeepers will, sooner or later, encounter a colony of honey bees that is temperamental – some will be temperamental to the point of being objectionable or demanding a remedy to avoid further stings or other problems.

The definition of a “mean hive” is ultimately subjective, and it is possible to find honey bee that are docile to the point that they won’t sting much, if at all, regardless of what happens to them.

Naturally, honey bees defend their nest, as their survival depends upon resistance to the many other organisms that would otherwise plunder the enormously nutrient and calorie rich matrix of hive products that the colony accumulates as it hordes environmental resources and rears tens of thousands of young. By the way, just in case you’re enthralled by Winnie the Pooh and other stories involving honey & bears… ‘Bear’ in mind that critters that depredate honey bee colonies, as bears and badgers and other insects do, are drawn as much to the brood or developing bees, as they are the honey. Undoubtedly, humans too were originally driven as much or more by a desire to consume the protein and lipid resources that developing honey bees constitute, as they were the sweet carbohydrate reserves of honey.

So bees – in an effort to defend the colony – sting intruders. It is that simple. But some honey bee colonies sting more than others. It is a testament to the power of bee breeding that people have been able to select and propagate honey bees that do not sting so much as their ancestors, and that makes beekeeping less of hunter/gatherer activity and more of a ranching/farming activity today than it once was. An interesting issue beyond the scope of this discussion is that one might speculate and conjecture that the intensely defensive behavior that is displayed by some honey bee populations might be reinforced, and even selected for, by the seek and destroy paradigm of honey bee colony hunting that characterizes some human/honey bee competitive interaction.

In our own efforts to breed better bees, we have not attempted to entirely suppress the natural inclination of honey bee colonies to defend themselves. To the contrary, we see that some level of defensive behavior is helpful in endowing colonies with the attributes or traits that they need to cope with colony parasites or pests. So to that end we have not tried to completely extinguish defensive behavior in our bees, but we insist upon and constantly strive to produce bees and queens that are manageable with smoke. That is to say, we want honey bees that you can smoke and prevent from exhibiting an exponentially expanding chain reaction of bad – from one bee is mad, to the whole colony is trying to sting you and you better run away (quickly). So our bees can be defensive, but if you have a smoker and know how to use it, then you can suppress overly defensive behavior with a few simple puffs of smoke directed into the hive at the right place and the right time. Proper smoking technique is also beyond the scope of this blog, but it is an essential beekeeping skill, best learned from another, more experienced, beekeeper.

So how do I know if my bees are too defensive?

The short answer is that any colony that quickly and relentlessly stings despite smoking and manipulating the hive appropriately, is too defensive – at least for you, if you are the one suffering the punishment. Remember that it is critical that you take the colony apart as you begin to work it, separating it’s component parts, to facilitate getting smoke into the brood nest and on the most defensive bees – which will always congregate near hive entrances/exits that are in most cases include the bottom of the hive.

Encounters with New World African (Africanized) bees are another kettle of fish, and you will know you’ve met that beast in its original form when you’re getting stung, or bees are bouncing off your windshield or veil, when you’re still 50 yards or more from the colony. Dealing with Africanized bees is again a subject that merits its own treatment but generally speaking it means preparing to do battle with the colony, entering quickly and locating the queen, then replacing her. That, in a nutshell, is how one deals with all overly defensive colonies.

Tools and procedures for dealing with a hyper-defensive colony

There are several techniques that you may employ to deal with a hyper-defensive colony. We’ll confine this discussion to those techniques that do not involve colony extermination – which remains the ultimate remedy, particularly if you’ve been stung and want revenge.

There are 2 basic tacks to take.

a) Strip off the older defensive bees; and,

b) Replace the queen with one that has calmer daughters.

The most critical is (b). Even if you do (a) you also have to do (b). The queen is the source of most of the germ-plasm that the entire colony has in common, though that is subject to the caveat that if there are a surfeit of drones from desirable colonies and an excess of drones from really hostile colonies when the young queen mates, then she may be revealing the paternal contribution that may be the dominant factor in the hive’s temperament. Nonetheless she is the repository of that semen and replacing her starts the process over – if you don’t introduce a new mated queen. If you introduce a new mated queen then you don’t have to gamble on the composition of the local population, and the dominant behavioral traits that it are most prevalent in that population.

But reducing the numbers of overly defensive bees can be useful too. To do that, you can employ a few different techniques, like moving the colony when most foragers are out, or shaking out older bees, which can optionally be combined with moving the colony too. The later procedure is usually beyond the scope of what most backyard and hobbyist beekeepers are prepared to do. Making several smaller colonies (splits or nucs) from the one defensive colony is another method to reduce each hive of overly defensive bees.

Replacing the queen:

The three alternative procedures to employ when requeening are listed below, in order of recommended implementation.

First – Try hunting the queen down visually by searching through in the colony, visually scanning combs, spending no more than a 10-15 seconds per side of a comb. Once she has been located you can kill her and then replace her with a mated queen using the usual queen introduction techniques.

Second –  You can try is dividing the hive into multiple parts so that you can more easily locate the queen later – obviously you need extra bottoms and covers to do this, and it will require disturbing the colony again a few days later. Simply blindly split or divide the hive, without attempting to find the queen, by setting one or more brood chambers or hive bodies (or supers so long as they have plenty of brood in them. Put the separated hive bodies or supers off on another bottom board located a few feet away, with the entrance oriented in a direction at least 90 degrees from the direction the original colony was facing. Come back at least 3 days but fewer than 10 days later and then find the sector where the queen remains by identifying eggs or embryos. Only one of the parts of the original hive will usually have eggs and a laying queen, after waiting 3+ days;

Third – (it is possible to do this second, not third) Shake all the bees from the original colony through a queen excluder. Place a queen excluder between two hive bodies or a hive body and a super. The top box (whether hive body or honey super is the top box above the excluder does not matter) should be empty with no combs and frames inside. Then shake the bees off all the combs and into the super or top hive body. The bees will crawl down into the bottom box below the excluder. The queen should be left behind above the excluder. Once you find the queen, then off with her head, or whatever other technique you choose to eliminate her. After that then as described earlier, introduce a new queen to the hive.

Remember to use plenty of smoke whenever you work a colony of bees!