May 26, 2022

Dealing With Feisty Bees (075)

Jim’s beeyard is the center of attention this week, because his bees were bothering his wife and a very patient, longtime neighbor. That’s not a good thing. So, exasperated, Jim asks Kim for his ideas about all that was going on and to help figure...

Jim’s beeyard is the center of attention this week, because his bees were bothering his wife and a very patient, longtime neighbor. That’s not a good thing. So, exasperated, Jim asks Kim for his ideas about all that was going on and to help figure out why.

Two of his colonies were swarming or at least it looked that way. Plus, he is experiencing a nectar dearth at the moment. Is robbing part of the problem? Regardless, his bees are feisty and others are paying the price.

It was a mixed bag of bee behavior going on in that beeyard that day and it can happen in your yard, too. Just when you think you got bees figured out, they will show you that you don’t. It happens to the most experienced and practiced beekeepers!

Listen in and see how it turns out, and how to try and handle feisty bees.

If you like the episode, share it with a fellow beekeepers and/or let us know by leaving a comment in the show notes. We'd love to hear from you!


Thanks to Betterbee for sponsoring today's episode. Betterbee’s mission is to support every beekeeper with excellent customer BetterBeeservice, continued education and quality equipment. From their colorful and informative catalog to their support of beekeeper educational activities, including this podcast series, Betterbee truly is Beekeepers Serving Beekeepers. See for yourself at


Honey Bee Obscura is brought to you by Growing Planet Media, LLC, the home of Beekeeping Today Podcast.

Music: Heart & Soul by Gyom, Walking in Paris by Studio Le Bus, original guitar music by Jeffrey Ott

Photos copyright © One Tew Bee, LLC

Copyright © 2022 by Growing Planet Media, LLC


Honey Bee Obscura

Episode 75 – Dealing With Feisty Bees


Jim Tew: Well, I've got a strange story that happened to me this week in my bee yard. It was an event that I'm not sure I was prepared for.

Kim Flottum: Something is always going on in your bee yard.

Jim: Why do you say it with that kind of inflection, Kim? There is something always going on in my bee yard, but this is a good one. I had a swarm or I had swarms. I don't quite know which, and right when you think you know bees and right when you think you've done this for a long time, and you know exactly what you're going to do, you really don't. You'll fall back on all the resources you've had. Hi, I'm Jim Tew.

Kim: I'm Kim Flottum.

Jim: We're coming to you from Honey Bee Obscura where talk once a week on various topics, and today I want to talk about a feisty swarm situation that I had to deal with.

Kim: I'm glad I don't have feisty swarms.

Introduction: You are listening to Honey Bee Obscura brought to you by Growing Planet Media. The folks behind Beekeeping Today Podcast. Each week on Honey Bee Obscura host Kim Flottum and Jim Tew explore the complexities, the beauty, the fun, and the challenges of managing honeybees in today's world and engaging in informative discussion meant for all beekeepers, long timers, and those just starting their journey with bees. Sit back and enjoy the next several minutes as Kim and Jim explore all things honeybees.

Jim: If I can tell you the story here I think you're going to be glad you didn't. Can I give it to you in chapters, Kim? I want to start with chapter one. My neighbor. As I was quietly coming back from a trip to my bee yard, seeing that there was a lot of activity, a lot of flight, and a lot of coming and going, and things were active. I glanced across the way to see my neighbor, the woman under attack by what must have been a bee in her hair. She was having the typical reactions where you flip your hair upside down, you beat yourself on the head, you dance in one place like somehow that might help.

At the moment she was having a tree put in and I heard the arborist sing out. "What's the problem? You got a bee in your hair?" She sang back, "Yes, I do." Well, I wanted him to go help her because I wanted to stay out of this fracas, but no, it's like he didn't want to get involved with that, either, since he had a full beard. I guess he had his own concerns there. You know what I was thinking the whole time, Kim? If she gets to be out, that little bee is going to come right back to her and try some other spot. The next time it may be a stingable spot.

I wanted to tell her try to sacrifice that bee where it is instead of just getting it out of your hair, and then given the bee a second shot. That was how my afternoon started last week, just about a week ago. Are you up to date so far with me before I go to chapter two?

Kim: [chuckles] Yes, I can see it. I can see your bee yard and I can see your neighbor doing that little dance over there.

Jim: Yes, it's not a pretty picture. I've talked about neighbors at length because I do have neighbors, they affect my bee life. I know, listeners, a lot of you don't have neighbors, or your bees are not where your neighbors are. If you've got neighbors, everything to negotiation. Chapter two. In a bit my wife came in and said that she had gone back, something she never does, to the back of our property and beyond that is a soybean field right now. It's going to be a housing division sooner or later. She was just going to check to see if they had done anything about this new housing complex going in.

She said, "While I was there," are you ready for it Kim? Are you ready for it? She said, "I got to bee in my hair, at least one, and I had to get that bee out. They're really testy. Okay, Kim. That's my neighbor and my wife, and one afternoon have both had my bees go after them and get stuck in their hair. You do think, was it a big bee? Did it have a yellow spot right in the middle of his eye and a real dark like a bumblebee? No, it was a small bee. Okay. That took out the carpenter bee possibility. Did it look more like a yellow jacket? You know those yellow jackets you see later in the summer, did it look like a real big version of that, because it could have been a yellowjacket queen.

My wife stood or ground and said, "No, it was one of your bees." I had to admit, Kim, that this is not good. My bees, for some reason, are looking for a fight. Then she said the poetic thing, the poignant thing, she said, "and there's a lot of noise back there. Are you expecting a swarm?" Well, I need to go back to the preamble that started this whole thing. It was a big, nice colony that had overwintered well, and I suspected that it was going to swarm. I probably started this, Kim, when you were still editor at Bee Culture, but I made the point that I wanted to use smaller colonies.

That I'm not a young man anymore and these big colonies, big populations, big honey crops are no longer something that I can readily handle. I had boldly said inseveral of the articles that I wrote that I was going to go to a smaller brood nest and that would result in swarming. When I saw that big colony, overwintered nicely, still in three deeps, that is swarm material. Just about a week and a half ago, I just split it in half. I had no idea who was where, as far as the queen was concerned. I just made certain that each half got open brood and then you guys can sort out where the queen is.

That was the stage that was set. That was the colony that I was suspicious of causing a lot of the problem. When she said, and I repeat, "Are you expecting a swarm back there?" Well, I was hoping I wasn't expecting one, I'd made a divide, but clearly, I was expecting a swarm. I told her I was and I promptly went back, and having a look, yes, when I was standing in there, Kim, they came after me too. They were no respecter of persons. I had two or three annoying bees right in your face doing the little sound. Should I try to do it on the microphone here? Or just let you know what it sounds like. That little high-pitched whine with that bee right in your face.

The ultimate arrogance of a bee attacking you. That's what was going on. Let's take a short break while I get myself mentally prepared to tell you what happened from there.

Kim: Okay.

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Jim: My wife was exactly right, there were bees everywhere. There were clouds of bees in the air, and don't you know that they were pitching, my grandfather would have said, P-I-T-C-H-I-N-G, pitching about 30 feet in the air above me. As I watched this for three to four-pound swarm cluster up in a spruce, all that ragged, jagged limb sticking out, you think, "I'll never get up there, I'm not even going to try," and while I was looking at it, Kim, there was a second swarm that was pitching above that one. About half the size, two pounds or so.

Well, there must be proper words you use at that point, I'm not sure what they would be that I can see here, but I can see one swarm going. I can see losing one swarm. I had written that you've got to get accustomed to missing these swarms, but I was not prepared to miss two of them. I told myself and this is where I guess it get thin, at least I'll get pictures out of this and at least I'll get a brood break. I will get a brood break, right, Kim? For Varroa control?

Kim: Well, it can help, that's true. There's a whole bunch of biology things going on and how the amount of brood and the age of the brood that's left in the colony will affect the overall population down the road, but there is some help for Varroa control by having a brood break.

Jim: Well, that was one of the things I put in the positive column, because, see, when you're standing there looking at two swarms, 25, 35 feet above your head, you got to think of some way to justify that or otherwise you're not much of a beekeeper because I was thinking of all the old techniques, a bow and arrow, or can you use a fishing rod? I'm not doing all that. These bees are just gone. They're just gone.

With my veil on, and with my bee tail between my legs, more or less, I left the yard for a while. I had to leave for about an hour and a half. The scene was not mine. Upon my return, and the reason I put the you and the listener through this whole story, the swarm, while I was gone, had moved to the ground all the way from the top of that tree spruce to the ground. It was all piled up there and it was just one swarm.

Now, either the swarms combined or one swarm was gone, I don't know what. It was on the ground, I took a four-frame, five-frame nuke over with four frames of drawn comb. A little bit of honey, it was left over from a dead out last season, and sat it right beside and the bees immediately. It was beginning beekeeping best situation. The swarm is on the ground. There's no limbs to cut, there's nothing. Expecting that there was a good chance I'd see the queen under these conditions. I had a queen cage at the ready, and Kim, there she was stumbling around, looking clumsy and overweight.

I grabbed her up, put her in the cage, put her inside that five-frame nuke. It was incredibly easy. The whole time, Kim, I've got to have a veil on. I can't explain up to this point why those bees were so testy, but even the swarm was testy. Then they all marched right in. About four days later, three days later, I released the queen and I got to tell you that as of this moment, a week later, I have not opened them. I wanted them to settle down because I know that that was not their first box of choice, their first cavity of choice. I wanted them to settle down before I began to open them and tinker around with them.

Kim: Ah, that's more than one story, I think. I think you've got several things. It sounds to me like there was more than one thing going on in your bee yard. What leads me to that, you've tickled my imagination here. You had two swarms and then you had one swarm on the ground. When that swarm moved into the nuke, you only had one queen. That tells me that one of those swarms left leaving you with only one swarm that went to the ground. At the same time, though, you've got bees that are just hassling your wife and your neighbor and you. If I'm correct, the timing on this is that early spring nectar dearth that we have here, you got the early dandelion flush and that. Then there's a break before the Tula Poplar and some of those things come on, it's not a big break and it's not terribly, it's not total, but so you may have had some robbing going on from some of your other colonies or even the colonies that were swarming, plus two of your colonies were swarming. At least two of your colonies were swarming. You had several, a bunch of things going on at the same time, it sounds like.

Jim: I'm thinking that you are exactly right. There was some nosing around. Bees nosing around some equipment sitting around, empty equipment. Kim, under those conditions, I've got bees that I suspect are going to swarm. Then you're right. I had bees that look like they were trying to rob. Then I wondered if I've got bees that are scouting for a new nest site and that old equipment. I don't want to leave everything as a mystery, but when you stand there at that moment, you can't really tell who's what. I think that you're right, that I was in the middle of a mixed bee behavioral bag.

That multiple things were going on at one time, some of the bees were robbing and were testy and defensive. Other bees are packing up and going to sites unknown. I don't know if anybody was checking out these new areas for future cavities or not. There was a lot of activity back there as my wife and my neighbor can attest to because they were involved in it too.

Kim: Well, it's a good thing you have a wife and a neighbor that are somewhat tolerant [chuckles] of this kind of activity in their backyard.

Jim: You don't know how true that is. Especially my neighbor. My wife is love her dearly, but she's trapped, but not my neighbor, she's not trapped at all. She really took it in good stride. Maybe at some other time, I want to talk about general queens and the fact that I may be willing to sacrifice honey productivity and winter survival just to have winter queens so I can be a good neighbor. Kim, right here, right now, I picked up that swarm, single or double, whichever it might be. After everything calmed down is life back to normal.

I can go back there again and the bees have settled down. I will go with your hypothesis that these bee was swarming at the end or the beginning of that little dearth that we have here in Ohio, in the Midwest, when the first fruit bloom season is gone. Then we're waiting for the second nectar flow to start Clover and Tulip Poplar and locust, and whatever else comes in, that there's a quiet time there when the bees turn to what they do otherwise when they're unemployed, rob from each other, and they're testy doing that. Listeners, sometimes you do get a mixed behavioral bag.

You can get more bee biology at one time. It's not always neat and clean, standalone, separately. Right now, I feel like an accomplished beekeeper, Kim. I got a 30-foot swarm down without ever raising a finger, without ever shooting a bow and arrow or a firearm or a fishing rod or whatever. Through no effort on my part, that swarm came down. I have no idea why.

Kim: Well, we're running a little short of time here, but I want to ask you one question before we go. Keep me informed about those two splits over the season that you made from that big column. I'd like to see where they go.

Jim: I would like to talk about that, Kim, because when you make these splits, usually called walk away splits, you just let them do their own thing. There's a long, quiet, dark period there. We'll talk about that later on. Right now, I've got the bees that didn't swarm away. I've got them in single deeps the way I wanted. I've got my neighbors for the present come and every everything is quiet now, Kim.

Kim: I guess my advice in a situation like that is keep your fingers crossed because it's not going to be that way for long.

Jim: Nope. It won't be. The next swarm won't come down.

Kim: [laughs]

Jim: Oh, the swarm stories we could talk about, but not now.

Kim: That was a good one, though. You got more than one thing going on.

Jim: I love that story, Kim, because it had a happy ending.

Kim: Ah, there you go.

Jim: Most swarm stories are how you have to justify losing that swarm. This one had a remarkable, happy ending for us.

Kim: For a suicidal behavior in recovering it.

Jim: For a suicidal behavior in recovering it. Hey, can we thank everybody for listening?

Kim: Yes, we can.

Jim: I appreciate you hanging on all this time, and we hope that your swarm biology stories are just as good as mine. If you got a good one, Kim likes to hear about it because it's always good to hear somebody else being successful. We don't have to leave our chairs and go out and get hot and sweaty.

Kim: [laughs] Go to the webpage and leave us a note and we'll get back to you.

Jim: Let's talk again sometime, Kim.

Kim: Good. Okay.

Jim: Bye.

[00:18:40] [END OF AUDIO]