The human species has a natural aversion to bees. We know that many species of bees, wasps, and hornets can and do sting, so that makes us wary of them. That is not a bad thing. The threat of being stung is one of the ways nature keeps humans and bees separated for the most part. The question is how that natural separation translates into beekeeping.
Is beekeeping dangerous? That’s a question that arises out of this natural separation and fear. Interestingly enough, there seems to be a general assumption among most people that it is. We cannot really say for sure why, but perhaps people just assume danger because of Hollywood films and TV shows that have portrayed bees as crazed killers just flying around looking for human flesh. Well, let’s set the record straight once and for all in terms of if beekeeping is dangerous.
As a general rule, most species of bees are docile and primarily defensive in the use of their stingers. The one exception is the Africanized honeybee, and that’s only because it is a hybrid honeybee created by scientific experimentation rather than nature.
Outside of the Africanized species, honeybees are generally docile. As such, beekeeping in generally safe.
The European Honeybee
Beekeeping is not necessarily limited to a single species. Still, the vast majority of beekeepers specialize in the European honeybee. This particular bee is the one kept by the majority of the world’s beekeepers. The good news is that the European honeybee is rarely aggressive.
As long as beekeepers understand the nature and characteristics of European honeybees, there is very little danger. European honeybees are not looking to get into a fight with human beekeepers or any other creatures. They will if they feel threatened, but they remain fairly docile otherwise.
So what are the things that can trigger aggression in European honeybees? There are a few things:
- Enemy Threats – Bees, wasps, and hornets are lazy creatures that would rather take over another hive if it meant not having to build their own. As such, they are natural enemies. Honeybees will get aggressive if they perceive any kind of enemy threat. For example, a wasp buzzing around a nest could trigger an all-out attack by the colony.
- Vibrations – Honeybees are easily stressed by nature. One of the things that stresses them most is excessive vibration. It could be their sensitivity to vibration is that which alerts them to potential attacks by wasps and hornets. At any rate, beekeepers know enough to move slowly and gently when they are working with their hives.
- Swarming – Honeybees swarm only when they are preparing to find a location for a new nest. Swarming is not naturally a defensive or aggressive mechanism. However, bees are on high alert during a swarm. So if they feel threatened at that time, they may become rather aggressive.
- Lack of a Queen – Every hive needs a queen to survive. If a queen dies or goes missing and there is no new queen to take her place, worker bees in a hive will become aggressive. That’s when beekeepers have to be especially on their toes.
- Entrance Activity – The one place bees are especially protective is around the entrance to the hive. They do not like anyone or anything getting too close to that entrance. That’s why there are always at least a few bees buzzing around. They are the sentries. Smart beekeepers know to approach a hive from the side rather than the front or rear.
- Stinging – Finally, a single bee stinging a perceived enemy sends out chemical distress signal that calls other bees to help. So all it takes is one bee feeling threatened enough to sting to cause a bunch more to come to its aid.
Although we have listed six things that can make honeybees aggressive, do not assume they are quick to attack. They are not. It takes quite a bit of stress to get a colony of European honeybees excited. Experienced beekeepers know this, so they adapt their beekeeping practices appropriately.
Aggression Against Other Bees
Although beekeeping is generally not dangerous in and of itself, there are times when a bee colony can be dangerous to other colonies. This is especially true from late summer through the autumn. This is the time of year when food supplies are running low and colonies are preparing for a long winter. This causes them to be a bit aggressive in the fight for food.
As previously stated, bees do not have a problem attacking another colony and taking over its nest. If that’s the easiest way to procure food for the winter, so be it. This is one of the reasons you might observe more aggressive behavior in bees come late summer.
Beekeepers generally don’t have problems among their own hives because they are actively working to make sure all the bees have adequate food. But it is not unheard of for colonies in the wild to come looking for food among domesticated hives. So beekeepers have to be on the lookout for foreign invaders. The best defense against such invaders is to maintain a healthy and thriving colony strong enough to defend itself.
The downside to this kind of behavior for beekeepers is getting caught in the middle of a neighborhood brawl, so to speak. If one of a beekeeper’s hives is on alert due to the threat of foreign invaders, just walking through the general vicinity of that hive could create further problems.
Tips for Keeping Your Bees Calm
The secret to minimizing whatever danger does exist in beekeeping is to keep your bees calm at all times. But it’s not like you can speak sweet words to them or give them hugs to make them feel validated and accepted. In other words, the strategies we use to calm our fellow human beings do not work on bees.
So what do you do? Here are a few tips for keeping bees calm:
- Limit Your Time – You have to spend at least some time maintaining your hives and collecting honey. You have to go out and check on the queens every now and again. Regardless of the work you’re doing, it’s important to keep your time interacting with the bees to a minimum. Only open the hives when you have to. And when they are open, finish up and close them again as quickly as you can.
- Control Movement – Remember that bees are especially susceptible to vibration. So when working around hives, move slowly and deliberately. Controlled movement will keep the bee’s excitement level to a minimum. On the other hand, jerky and uncontrolled movements will only stress them.
- Keep Them Fed – About the middle of summer it is helpful to check on the amount of honey in your hives. If it is lower than it should be, that is a sign that your bees are having trouble finding food. You can help out by supplying external food. One example is a sugar water left in a tray just outside the hive.
- Keep Kids Away – A lot of beekeepers find it helpful to keep their kids away from the hives. Teach the little ones to steer clear so that their running around and other high-energy activities do not excite the bees. To that end, you will find your bees are a lot calmer if you locate your hives away from the house.
- Split Your Hives – Hive-splitting is a way to increase the total volume of bees you keep. But guess what? It’s also a way to keep your bees calm. If you have a hive that looks like it is outgrowing its space, there’s a good chance it will swarm in the spring. Proactively splitting that hive before it swarms mitigates the need to swarm altogether.
At the end of the day, beekeeping is generally safe. There is always some level of danger whenever you deal with nature’s creatures, but the sort of danger associated with honeybees is disproportionate to reality. Most beekeepers go their entire careers without ever experiencing a significant event.
As long as you respect the nature of bees and make an effort to keep them calm, you shouldn’t have any problems. Do not believe the sensationalized movies and TV shows that portray bees as a hazard to your health. They really aren’t. Bees are actually quite gentle most of the time.