Aug. 19, 2021

Ugly (Mean) Bees (035)

Ugly (Mean) Bees  (035)

What do you do about ugly or mean bees? It can be difficult to determine which colony in a beeyard with several colonies is the one, or maybe one of several, that has scouting guard bees meet you at the gate when you go to a beeyard. If you can...

Ugly BeesWhat do you do about ugly or mean bees? It can be difficult to determine which colony in a beeyard with several colonies is the one, or maybe one of several, that has scouting guard bees meet you at the gate when you go to a beeyard.

If you can determine which colony is the one with the problems, why is it behaving so aggressively? Several reasons come to mind – something is bothering it at night, maybe a skunk for several nights, then you come along and they’ve about had it with being disturbed.

Or, you caught a swarm. Where did those bees come from? Did you make a split, keep the mother-queen and let the other half raise their own queen? Who she mated with could result in a mean colony due to genes.

Sometimes, it’s just because a big colony has more bees, more guards, more foragers…just more bees. So, a big colony is going to be more of everything…more bees, more honey, more guards. More mean.

Bee SuitsWhat do you do? Worry about the neighbors? Wear heavy duty equipment? Work them at a different time of day? Have a second, isolated beeyard?

Do mean colonies make more honey than gentle colonies? Sometimes.



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Honey Bee Obscura

Episode 35 – Ugly (Mean) Bees


Jim Tew: Kim, all down through the years, some questions just hang in there. They just keep coming up over and over again. You know what I mean?

Kim Flottum: I do. That's what kept me in the magazine business for 30 years.

Jim: I hadn't thought about that. One of those questions is, and I'm sure it's from a queen replacement standpoint, they're hostile bees, aggressive bees, produce more honey than nice, gentle, kitten bees.

Kim: The perfect answer to that is sometimes.

Jim: Sometimes. Let's talk about it.

Kim: All right.

Jim: Hi, I'm Jim Tew.


Kim: I'm Kim Flottum.

Jim: We're coming to you from Honey Bee Obscura, where we're trying to decide today if we think that hostile bees are better or worse honey producers than gentle bees, and Kim has already put out a nice summary, sometimes.

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 hosts, 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 an 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.

Kim: The thing is, you and I have both had both sides of that equation in our bee yard. There are some years where I've had bees that I couldn't go out the back door without having a problem. I get to the bee yard and it'd be one colony, but that one colony had produced five boxes of honey, and those nice gentle bees over there that didn't bother me at all and didn't care if I was there maybe two.

Jim: The problem that I have is switched colony. I've been through this with your magazine. I had a colony that came in as a swarm and it was unforgiving and it made the mistake of stinging my neighbor. I had 15 beehives back there and when I would go into my apiary, I would be accosted by these angry bees and you stand there and you think, "Which colony is doing it? I want to kill one of you," more or less, do you just pick one out and do it and see if you frightened the others.

Kim: Intimidation.

Jim: I had a difficult time trying to decide which one is the colonies sending out these nasty bees?

Kim: Betting on biology, which is probably never a wise thing to do, but betting on biology, you had a swarm, that swarm came in, they got established, they replaced the queen that came them. The queen that they raised made it with somebody else in your area, and so the genetics really changed.

Jim: All of this is possible. It ended up, Kim. I don't know if you know my story or not, I did write about it, but it was a swarm and I did move it and it did solve the problem. My neighbor was a gentleman about it because his bees did go for him. What the deal is though, Kim, that seemed to have been genetics. When is it an issue of just a good colony that it was gentle in the spring or it was gentle just up until a few weeks ago, and now this thing is remarkably testy? Sometimes robbing, sometimes conditions in the yard brings this up.

Kim: A skunk.

Jim: A skunk, that's exactly right. Something had kept the colony in a tizzy throughout the night. The beehive doesn't make any discrepancy between the good guys and the bad guys. It's always been painful when you're stung because of something a raccoon caused last night. I didn't do it, I'm not the problem here, why are you attacking me? I'm on your side, belligerent beehive. While we're talking about belligerent beehives, how do you measure that belligerency?

Kim: That's a good question. I have an answer that it's just one of those things that you gain after you've opened a thousand colonies. Is that, do they meet you before you get to the hive? Take the cover off, do they meet you coming up through the inner cover? Take the inner cover off, put in a ton of smoke, do they still stay there? By now I know that if I get that far and I've got bees in the air and I've got bees between frames, I know that there's something going on here and maybe I want to come back a little later.

Jim: I appreciate that fully. With no authority at all, I named these bees sentry bees like a guard sentry because I would open the gate to my apiary and I'd be met by four or five hostile bees. Those bees come from that hot colony were unintentionally guarding the entire apiary back there, so I named them sentry beesbecause they were on guard duty for anyone that came in.

That kind of hostility, I'm not going to be able to live with because I do have close neighbors and he did cut the grass and he was stung. My measure of belligerency is what effect are my bees having on other people.

Kim: That's a good measure. The other half of that equation is if you've got a few sentry bees out there and one of them stings you, you got a bee suit on, so you don't notice it, but suddenly, there's venom in the air and now everybody's all nervous. Now it's wafting down the street, and the bees are following it down the streets, so suddenly, you've got one colony that's causing you a neighborhood problem or could cause a neighborhood problem. It's a lot like robbing, the same result.

Jim: I'm back to where I started, how much is too much? When we take this old standard question, the mean bees, the hostile bees, do aggressive bees produce more honey than general bees? Probably, but boy, that comes with a caveat. You're also wanting to get the whole nine yards - from upset neighbors, from full bee suits being worn all the time, from aggressive bees meeting you when you open the gate.

Now I know for commercial beekeepers, especially all down through central America, that those hot bees are better honey producers than the mild or more gently sophisticatedly bred European bees. It really depends if you're in the business of making a living from honey production, you probably want hotter bees.

Kim: Another part of that is that if you got a colony that's really a buster colony, you've got a queen that's producing a lot of eggs, a lot of larvae, a lot of nurse bees, a lot of foragers, and the science of guarding a colony is that some small percent of the guards in the colony are airborne. If you've got a colony that's only got a box and a half or two boxes on it, you've got the same percentage of those bees in the air, which is going to be a much smaller number than that colony that's got the same percentage of bees in the air, that's got 10 times as many bees in it. The measured behavior is that it's a hot colony, wherein it's a normal colony for a colony its size. That makes sense?

Jim: It does, but hold that thought, and let me say, did you just hear yourself?


Because the question was, the aggressive bees produce more honey than general bees, which is like yes and no, and I'm thinking about how correct you are and how complicated it is.

Kim: The colony is going to have more bees out foraging for honey, it's going to have more bees guarding the colony, it's going to have more bees at the front door, it's going to have more bees dehydrating honey, it's going to have more nurse bees inside. Everything is the same in terms of what's going on. There's just more of it in that big colony.

Jim: I want to say that big colony with all those foragers is going to be out moseying around its neighbors too. It's going to be out there causing problems, shaking this neighbor's door handles seeing if they can get in to take those honey stores. That big colony is the bully in the schoolyard. It wants it all. It wants to do everything.

Kim: Yes, my opinion, now is a good time to make a split


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Jim: I was thinking, as we talk about this, here we are, we've got a colony that's hostile, we've finally decided which one it is by hook or crook. One way or the other, we figured it out. You open it up and she's got a good brood pattern, it's a good, full colony of bees, and they're making honey, but they're hot, so we're going to kill that queen. Let me get back to you on that, Kim.

Can I just wear more gloves? Can I work bees later in the day? Can I try to negotiate with this beehive instead of taking a queen? Because what guarantee, Kim, do I have that I'll put a new queen in for $35 that won't have some issue with her?

Kim: Long ago and far away, I did that exact thing that I just mentioned. I had a big colony that seemed to be more aggressive than the smaller colonies I had. I made a split and I put a new queen in half the split and I kept the original queen in the original hive and both of them turned out meaner and snot, and I don't know why.

Jim: [laughs] All right, I have no idea either. I've got a simple thing that I do that has been helpful so far. I've learned to tell people, always have two bee yards. Even if you have two beehives, have them each one at a separate yard. If I have a bee colony that just is intolerable, it goes to the panel location out away and isolated. I've got all kinds of stories about that location and bears and whatever, but I just get them.

If you can't live with people, then I'll take you where there's no people. It's inconvenient and annoying and you're angry to have to move one or two beehives to this remote yard just because they couldn't play nicely with the other bees around here.

Kim: Or you couldn't figure out why.

Jim: Yes, I do believe that these aggressive bees probably make more honey and forage more aggressively than the bees that we have specifically bred to be gentle and docile and don't swarm and stay home and wait for us to help you get through the winter.

Kim: At least sometimes.

Jim: At least sometimes.


Kim: I don't think we solved this one, although maybe we shed some light at it. If you've got a mean colony and it's making you a lot of honey, let us know how it worked out for you.

Jim: Yes, let us know what you did with that and let us know how your neighbors thought about it for those of you who have neighbors. We always appreciate your listening, I hope you know that. A podcast is not much of a podcast without someone to listen to it. If you're so inclined to subscribe, we appreciate it very much.

Kim: We appreciate our sponsors, you listening and pass this along to somebody you think it might help. It's been a good time, Jim.

Jim: I'll talk to you again, friend. Bye-bye.