When Bees Are Most Likely To Sting: Honeybee Colonies and Their Moods

A Honey Bee Immediately After Having Stung
A Honey Bee Immediately After Having Stung | Source

Bees can sting, we all know that. And, let’s be honest, everybody knows that females of any species can be a bit moody. Apply this dictum to a colony of honeybees, which are nearly all female, and the occasional bee sting is inevitable. While the beekeeper can count on the occasional sting as an occupational hazard, honeybee colonies are more defensive at some times than at others. One day you peek into the colony and the bees happily go about their business unperturbed by your presence, other times you barely crack the top before being met with a barrage of buzzing, stinging bombers bent on driving you away, far away.

Luckily for the beekeeper, the moods of a honey bee colony are not entirely unpredictable. There are several factors that influence the defensiveness of a bee colony.

Honey Bees Are Only Interested in Defending the Colony

The first thing to keep in mind is that honey bees are only interested in defending the colony. Bees that are encountered foraging for nectar, far from the hive, have no interest in stinging you. They have nothing to defend. These bees sting only if they are threatened in such a way that they can’t retreat, like getting stepped-on, or caught in your hair. The same holds true for a swarm. While several thousand bees clustered on a branch are an impressive sight, and daunting to many people, swarms are quite gentle. Again, having left the hive and not yet found a new home, they have nothing to defend.

Forager Bees and Defensive Behavior

In every colony there are guard bees, bees whose specific task it is to guard the colony. Guard bees might initiate defensive behavior, but in my experience it is the presence or absence of foragers that is the best predictor of colony mood.

The oldest worker bees are the most defensive and the oldest workers in the colony are the foragers, the bees that go out and collect nectar and pollen. This makes a warm, sunny day during a nectar flow (when lots of flowers are blooming) the best time to work your bees, because most of the foragers are out of the hive, foraging.

Conversely, bee colonies are most defensive on days when the foragers are stuck in the hive. Bees can’t fly in rainy weather, so gray days make for a black mood. The same principle holds true for early morning before most of the foragers have left the hive, and late afternoon when most are back.

Periods of dearth, when there are no flowers blooming and no nectar to gather, also lead to more defensive colonies. The foragers, having no nectar to gather, hang around the hive making for an ill- tempered colony.

Queenless Colonies and Defensive Behavior

One of the reasons that forager bees are more defensive than other bees in the colony may be that they are less exposed to queen mandibular pheromone (QMP). QMP is a substance secreted by the queen and distributed through the colony. Exposure to QMP makes honey bees less defensive. Foragers have less exposure to QMP because they spend much of their time outside the hive.

The absence of QMP helps explain why queenless colonies tend to be more defensive than those that are queenright (have a queen). One of the signs of queenlessness is that a colony is agitated and defensive when it should be at its most docile such as in the middle of a warm, sunny day during a nectar flow.

Night, Predation, and Rough Handling

All bee colonies will exhibit increased defensiveness at night, perhaps because many of their natural predators are nocturnal. Also, a colony that has to frequently defend itself from a predator, such as a skunk, will be unusually defensive. It seems that the more frequently a colony has to defend itself the more quickly it will do so.

Rough handling by the beekeeper can also make a colony defensive. Squishing bees releases alarm pheromones that upset the entire colony and lead to more stings.

Summary

So, to reiterate, honey bee colonies tend to be most defensive:

1. When most of the foragers are in the hive:

A) During rainy weather

B) Early in the morning and late in the afternoon

C) During a nectar dearth

2. When queenless

3. At night

4. When frequently having to defend against predators, like skunks

5. When handled roughly by the beekeeper

Working bees on warm, sunny days during a nectar flow helps insure that the colony will be at its most docile. Under these conditions, it’s not uncommon to work bees without receiving any stings at all. However, sometimes bee work must be done under less than ideal conditions. When this is the case, try not to compound the problem. For example, during a dearth, when the bees are already testy, try to work them in the middle of the day, not just before sun down. If your bees are being bothered by predators, put a stop to it and when you work your bees, always be gentle.

Keep the above factors in mind and you can better anticipate the mood of your bee colony and be ready if they are more defensive than usual.

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Comments 19 comments

findawayormakeone profile image

findawayormakeone 5 years ago from Washington, DC Metro Area

This is an excellent Hub! I'm always awed by interesting animal facts, particularly of the ones I most fear. Well written, well versed and significantly informative. Thanks


Wib Magli profile image

Wib Magli 5 years ago from Tennessee and Alabama Author

Thank you findawayormakeone. I am glad that you enjoyed it.


Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Patty Inglish, MS 5 years ago from North America

I love bees - thanks for the Hub!


Wib Magli profile image

Wib Magli 5 years ago from Tennessee and Alabama Author

Patty,

Thank you.


Simone Smith profile image

Simone Smith 5 years ago from San Francisco

A very useful guide! I've never been all that afraid of bees, but have some friends who are very, very nervous around them, and the information I've learned from your Hub should help to calm them down!


Wib Magli profile image

Wib Magli 5 years ago from Tennessee and Alabama Author

Simone, I hope that the info. helps. You are right; bees are really nothing to be afraid of. Thank you.


ripplemaker profile image

ripplemaker 5 years ago from Cebu, Philippines

Now that I know this, I wouldn't have to be so afraid to be around bees. :)

Congratulations on your Hubnuggets nomination! To read and vote, head this way please: http://redelf.hubpages.com/hubnuggets6/hub/How-To-...


Wib Magli profile image

Wib Magli 5 years ago from Tennessee and Alabama Author

Thank you ripplemaker.


GoodLady profile image

GoodLady 5 years ago from Rome, Italy

Really nicely written Hub. Good to know much more about bees, thanks.

We have loads of them round the vines in summer and they don't sting. We just don't bother each other!

Hope you enjoy Hub Pages!


sgsamgise 4 years ago

Great hub and very interesting, voted up :)


Wib Magli profile image

Wib Magli 4 years ago from Tennessee and Alabama Author

GoodLady and sgsamgise,

Thank you both. I am glad that you enjoyed it.


aethelthryth profile image

aethelthryth 4 years ago from American Southwest

I was told that if you open the hive and see the bees all lined up watching you with beady little eyes (as compared to just going about their business), it's not a good time to work them. I saw this for myself one day when most of the sky was blue, but a thunderstorm was approaching in the part of the sky that was hidden from me....

By the way, a stung, swollen ear looks really funny.

Thanks for an interesting hub on one of my hobbies.


blue chip profile image

blue chip 4 years ago

Yeah, bees are pretty fascinating. I removed 3 colonies from a house, and was able catch the swarms in some second hand supers I picked up. Used one of the metal fences from a queen excluder, stapled across the entrance, to keep the bees from swarming out of the super. Had to re-catch one swarm 3 times before I came up with that idea. Everything was makeshift, from the homemade veil to the smoker,(using a bicycle pump for bellows). It was an experience. Must have gotten stung about a hundred times on that job.

You're right about the worker in the field not having cause to sting. But in defense of the colony they can get pretty aggressive. Watch out for using a metal leaf rake around a hive- something about the vibrations seems to set them off- and lawnmowers. But even though they've stung me and chased me so many times, I'll still rescue one from drowning in the birdbath, 'cause they won't bother me if I don't bother them. Besides I like honey.

Enjoyed your hub.


Wib Magli profile image

Wib Magli 4 years ago from Tennessee and Alabama Author

aethelthryth, Bees can definitely sense an impending storm, even when the sky is blue. As you get stung more often, you will swell less. At least, that was the way it happened for me.

Blue Chip, I guess necessity is the mother of invention. I have done some bee removal also. You earn your money.

Thank you both for reading.


MrMaranatha profile image

MrMaranatha 4 years ago from Somewhere in the third world.

Just a thought: You might want to remind people that they should NEVER approach a hive from the side that the bees are entering and exiting from. Especially when you are working with the hive... Grandpa was working one of his hives when a politician came to call... He told that man to stay clear... But either he wasn't listning, did not understand "gud inglish" or "Figured it our too late"... Probably the latter... he walked right in front of the entrance to the hive and took a quick trip to the cows pond trying to dive under ankle deep water to escape them bees... Grandpa used to laugh to death telling about that time... It was a true story... some relatives witnessed it from the porch... :-) Love my family of Rednecks :-)


christine 2 years ago

What a shame about your stupid sexist second sentance "let's be honest females of any species can be moody". Seriously! Let's be honest so can males, so why bother saying it


Leland 18 months ago

Nothing like some blatant sexism to get an article off on the wrong foot. Why is this comment necessary? "... everybody knows that females of any species can be a bit moody."


blue chip profile image

blue chip 18 months ago

@Leland & christine: First of all, I don't believe the author got the article off on the wrong foot; the fact is: he got the article off. How many articles have you written? Secondly, in bringing out the point that a honey bee colony is mostly female (the fatso males, drones, just hang around feeding on what the female workers have slaved all day harvesting, just waiting for the next queen who needs fertilizing. Yep, they only hang around waiting for sex. How sexist is Mother Nature? Oops, referring to Nature as a Mother is sexist too, isn't it? Geez!) and taking a friendly poke at a sort of proverbial feminine moody disposition to move the reader to be prepared for the times when bees are more likely to sting. He also wrote, " always be gentle".

Some men have been known to plan a fishing trip when it was "that time of the month" to avoid their wives' moody behavior. Other men have found a way to be gentle and assuage it. But almost everybody has to deal with it at some time or another, more or less, when dealing with the female of the species. His allusion probably only brought a smile (or smirk) to most readers, and would probably only offend those who are saddle sore from riding their politically correct high horses too long.

Viva la difference! I enjoyed it.


Daniel BeeShepherd 3 months ago

Is this kind of casual sexism bordering on misogyny acceptable to you? It's not acceptable to me AT ALL. Shame.

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