For the novice beekeeper especially, working with an aggressive colony of bees can be a little daunting.
When I had an aggressive colony I enlisted the help of more experienced beekeepers from my local club. They were very willing to offer advice and practical help.
Finding out why is important as it provides the necessary information that will help you learn to manage such a hive. There are several reasons why a colony may be aggressive, however the situation is often short lived and there is always a way to reduce or alleviate such behavior.
Why Are My Bees Aggressive?
Some reasons why your bees might be aggressive are:
- There is not enough nectar and pollen.
- The colony has no queen.
- The queen is aggressive.
- You take too much time to inspect the hive.
Not Enough Nectar and Pollen
If your colony doesn’t have enough food they can become agitated. The workers may also aggressively rob a nearby hive of honey. Both situations can be avoided.
The type and number of flowers in bloom change each year with every season – no two Spring and Summer seasons are the same. Weather factors, climate changes and events such as drought, heavy rains and fire will affect what plants will flower, when they flower or if they will flower at all. Unsuitable weather conditions can prevent the bees from leaving the hive and so they must rely upon their honey stores.
As a beekeeper, it’s a good idea to maintain some form of record keeping about what is in flower in your garden, as well as nearby properties if bees from your hive visit them. The record keeping should include unusual weather patterns or events that may have occurred. This helps explain why there may be a nectar and pollen shortage at some time.
The best preventative measure is to prepare your garden even before your colony arrives with group plantings of flowering plants that attract bees. Include plants that will provide nectar and pollen at different times of the year so the worker bees have plenty to choose from and don’t have to go too far. Not all flowers provide both pollen and nectar and some look pretty but don’t attract the European honey bee.
Walk around your neighborhood to see what grows well and which plants attract bees. Ask members of your local club about bee loving plants they grow. Remember to plant a group of the same flowering plants together, not just one or two. Bees need thousands of flowers to get the nectar and pollen they require.
For an emergency situation the response if different. You will need to feed your hive a recipe of sugar syrup. Use white sugar with a ratio of two parts sugar to one part water.
Fill an internal feeder with the syrup once cooled and place it in the hive after removing an outer frame. Don’t use an external feeder as this will encourage unwanted guests!
No Queen In The Colony
If for some reason there is no queen present in the colony, bees can become aggressive. The colony without a queen will not survive as her presence guarantees the future of the hive, so the bees will work frantically to raise a new queen. They may become defensive and protective as they work to requeen the hive. Once there is a queen the tone of the hive is more settled.
If you suspect your hive is without a queen but need to confirm if your suspicions are warranted, firstly inspect the hive to find the queen. If you are new to beekeeping, enlist the help of an experienced beekeeper who is willing to join you during the inspection. The extra set of eyes is invaluable.
You should look for the queen somewhere on the brood frames located toward the centre of the hive. If you can’t see her, then the following may indicate a weakened queen or no queen at all:
- Sporadic pattern of brood or no brood present.
- The absence of newly laid eggs.
- A dwindling population of bees (as the workers die they are not being replaced).
- Several queen cells usually located at the bottom of a frame (a queen cell is much larger than usual, is shaped a bit like a peanut and hangs down from the frame).
To remedy the situation you need to make a decision quickly. Talk it over with one of your beekeeping colleagues to get their advice.
If the bees have made several queen cells then you can let nature take its course. The queen first born will kill the others and become the new queen.
However, she must then successfully return from her mating flight before she can begin laying eggs. Even if she does, it will take her one to two weeks to start laying. By this time, there may not be enough workers left alive to undertake all the work required, and the hive may still die as a result.
The other choice is to purchase a young, mated queen from a queen breeder. Ask members of your local club for a breeder they would recommend. The queen can be collected by you or can be delivered by mail. She will be in a cage with food and some attendants.
There are a few advantages if you make this choice. First of all she will be ready to lay eggs almost as soon as she is released into the hive. The cage sugar barrier will be eaten away by the worker bees and by this time her pheromones will have permeated the hive and she will most likely be accepted.
Queen breeders usually mark the thorax of each queen with a special colored marker, allowing her to be more easily spotted during an inspection. The color indicates the year the queen was born, and follows a specific pattern.
An Aggressive Queen
An aggressive queen can pass characteristics of her temperament on to her offspring, which in turn leads to an aggressive hive. I have an aggressive hive and although at times I find them difficult, they are the most active and quickest to produce honey.
Generally it’s best to replace the queen with one of a better temperament. As I mentioned before, consult members of your local club regarding a breeder they have used and would recommend. If this is not possible, then find out if your beekeeping supply store has them. Otherwise, try searching online.
Too Much Time Taken To Inspect The Hive
Bees can become agitated if you take too much time or uses too much smoke inspecting the hive. The hive can be affected and take longer, sometimes a week or two, to recover afterwards if the inspection is too long.
The bees aim to protect their colony, including the brood, the queen and the honey. They perceive your inspection as a threat and will endeavor to make you uncomfortable enough to leave them alone.
If you are a new beekeeper with limited experience, you may take longer to inspect your hive in the beginning. The key for every beekeeper is to be prepared. Have all your equipment ready by the hive before you open it. Be clear as to what you want to achieve during the inspection and consult your records as to what you found last time.
Choose a warm, calm day when many bees will be out of the hive foraging and be sure to wear white. As you become more experienced you will be able to inspect the hive more efficiently.
Sometimes bees become angry or aggressive and there can be several reasons why. Often it’s a temporary situation that can be alleviated by some forward planning.
Be as prepared as you can, as calm as you can and, if unsure, ask for advice from another beekeeper. As you gain experience you will feel more confident and ready to inspect your hive, cranky bees or not.