Avoiding Bee Stings

Capped honey comb

If you keep bees you're going to get stung; it's inevitable. But just because it's inevitable doesn't mean it has to be frequent. Key to avoiding being stung is understanding why honeybees sting. With just a little bit of knowledge you really can avoid a lot of stings. And if an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, then there can be no better treatment for bee stings than avoiding them.

Stinging is Always Defensive

The first thing you need to understand is that when a honeybee stings she dies. It's unpleasant for you, maybe worse if you're allergic, but it is always the ultimate sacrifice for her.

That is why honeybees only sting in defense of the hive and the colony. They will never sting because they just don't like you, or even out of a sense of vengeance. If they sting, if they make the ultimate sacrifice, it will always be for home and family.

This is why you will never find a more docile group of honeybees than a swarm. They have no hive, so they have nothing to defend.

Actually, they can become defensive if they perceive a threat to the colony, i.e. the swarm, but if you just gently brush the cluster into a box, the remaining bees will probably join them. It depends on if you get the queen. As long as they don't feel threatened, they'll go where the queen goes.

I don't advocate doing so, but swarms are so notoriously docile that it's not uncommon for beekeepers to collect them without wearing any kind of protective equipment (jacket, veil, etc.).

You will find similar behavior when doing cutouts. Oh, to be sure, when you first take a chainsaw to the log and cut into the hive chamber the honeybees will be very unhappy. But there will quickly come a point that they realize their hive is lost. Since they don't do "vengeance," from that moment on they will no longer defend that hive. They will switch to evacuation as the means of protecting the colony. They will start collecting as much wax, honey, and pollen as they can in preparation of going to find a new home.

At that point, many beekeepers will remove their gloves and veil so they can work more quickly. They will actually grasp and remove bee-laden comb with their bare hands. I shouldn't have to say this, but I will anyway. And yes I know that I'm repeating it from 2 paragraphs up, but this is important. Never work bees without protection. It may be convenient, it may be easier, it may even impress your girlfriend, but it's still silly and needlessly careless.

Anyway, once the honeybee stings she dies, without exception, every time, so she really would prefer not to sting you. As long as you do not pose a threat to her hive or her colony she will happily tolerate you.

Well, I should say that she'll tolerate you to the extent her genetics allow.

Genetic Predisposition

Let's face it. Some bees are just more well-behaved than others. There is unarguably a genetic component to honeybee aggression. If there were no other reason to rear honeybee queens, this would be enough, i.e. having the ability to manage the honeybees' genetic predisposition to aggression.

Famously, (or perhaps I should say infamously) AHBs (Africanized Honey Bees) can be provoked to aggression by as little a "threat" as proximity. You need only get too close to their hive and they consider that alone a threat worthy of their sacrifice.

Other honeybees are much more docile. My first hives were so mild mannered that I used to say if they were any gentler I'd have to fit them with tiny leashes and walk them to the flowers.

Of course, genetics are only one factor in determining honeybee behavior. Environmental conditions also play a big role in honeybee disposition. Even the gentlest colony has days when they're just in no mood.

Environmental Conditions; Darkness

For example, if it's dark out, or nearly dark (dawn or dusk), the honeybees do not want to be bothered. Even if it's just overcast they'll be more short tempered than normal, and yes, the darker it gets the more they become agitated.

I believe that honeybees are in the best mood, on their best behavior if you will, when they're doing what they're supposed to do. I don't think it's any more mysterious than that. If they can't see the Sun they can't navigate to forage, and if they can't forage, if they can't go about doing what they're driven to do, then they're going to be short tempered.

That's not to say you can't work the hive in darkened conditions, but you'd better be well suited up if you do. You'd better get in, do what you need to do, and get out.

Environmental Conditions; Wind

Being able to see the Sun isn't the only thing the honeybees need to navigate. They also need gentle winds. If it's too windy they can't fly, which means they can't forage.

Even the most powerful commercial airliners and military aircraft can be grounded due to high winds. Imagine how little wind it takes to ground an insect that, up until very recently at least, was supposed to be aerodynamically incapable of flight at all.

So a windy day will put honeybees on edge. If it's just a little windy maybe they'll just be a little testy, but the more the winds blow the more agitated they will become.

Environmental Conditions; Rain

Likewise, if it's raining honeybees will become very short tempered.

First of all consider that a raindrop, relative to the size of a honey bee, is about the equivalent of a bucket of water to you or me. Now imagine being hit with a bucket sized slug of water falling at terminal velocity and you might have a bit of sympathy for the honeybee.

If a bucket is 2 to 3 gallons, that's approximately 15 to 20 pounds of incompressible mass moving pretty fast. That could downright hurt. At the very least, it could knock you off balance. It doesn't take much empathizing to understand why rain would keep the honeybees from flying, and thus foraging.

But there's actually more to it than that. In cold weather it's moisture, not cold, that kills colonies. Honeybee colonies can survive some ridiculously brutal cold, but even on what you or I might consider just a cool night a little moisture in the hive can kill the colony. Water is an incredible heat sink.

Even in warm weather honeybees work very hard to control the humidity in their hive; it's how they cure the honey before capping. The bottom line is simple. Opening a hive in the rain is just mean. Okay? Seriously, just don't do it.

Circumstantial Conditions

In addition to environmental factors, circumstantial factors can also affect the mood of honeybees. For example, if a colony is queenless they will tend to be more on edge than normal. This could be because the queen was lost or killed, or it could be because she's stopped producing brood and must be replaced. Likewise if the colony is preparing to swarm the honeybees can be a bit more temperamental.

The point is that there are a lot of factors, things that can put your honeybees in a bad mood. This is why you should always suit up to work your bees. It doesn't matter how docile they are under normal conditions. All it takes is one time, just once, and you can quickly find yourself being attacked without any effective defense. It's just not worth the risk.

Triggers

Up to now we've only considered predisposition and a few factors that affect the honeybees' moods, but these factors only make the honeybees more or less likely to become defensive. It still takes a triggering action to incite the honeybees to action.

And as noted earlier, given enough of a predisposition toward defensive behavior, just being too near the hive can be a trigger. If you have such a "hot" hive, there's really nothing you can do to assuage that behavior except to requeen the hive. Change the queen, and you change the genetics.

But there are other triggers, some obvious, some seemingly innocuous, but all of which can incite even the gentlest colony to defend itself. Those are triggers that you can learn to avoid.

Trigger #1: Carelessly Injuring a Honeybee

If you've ever accidently stepped on a bee with your bare foot, or accidentally crushed one with your bare finger, then you know from experience that they will in fact sting you as their last act in this world. But it isn't an act of spite, or even self-defense.

Think about it for a moment. Would it make sense that a honeybee would sacrifice its life in order to preserve its life? Even the question doesn't make sense. And I've already said that honeybees don't "do" vengeance. So why do they endure what I imagine would be an even more horrid death (disemboweling) when they're going to die anyway?

Even then, as a last desperate act, the honeybee is only stinging to defend the hive and the colony. She instinctively equates any threat to herself as a threat to the colony and responds by stinging and excreting an alarm pheromone to alert the other honeybees.

Fortunately, if it is a one-time accident and not a continuing behavior, even if other bees "smell" the alarm pheromone and come to investigate, they may well (depending on their predisposition on that given day) see no continued threat and go about their business.

Of course, if you're just rushing through your inspection like a bull in a china shop then you're probably injuring multiple honeybees, and the rest will be far more likely to respond accordingly.

So rule #1 is this. Be slow and gentle as you methodically go through your hive inspection. Be as careful as you can to avoid injuring the honeybees. I know you want to finish as quickly as you can, but there's an old saying that is perfect for this situation.

Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.

Trigger #2: Rapid Vibrations/Impacts

Smooth. That's a good word to think about when you're thinking about inspecting your hives. Impacts and rapid vibrations, if they are sustained, can trigger defensive behavior.

There's an inspection technique I employ whereby I rap on the hive body with my knuckles one time and listen to the honeybees' response. When everything is normal they will produce a distinctive buzz-back. It's a buzzing sound that quickly rises above the normal buzzing level and then just as quickly subsides. It lasts about 1 to 2 seconds or so. If it lasts longer than that, something is wrong.

Usually it tells me the hive is just fine and there's no need for me to disturb the honeybees any further.

Did you pick up on the fact that I do intentionally disturb the honeybees? That single rap is a trigger. But as long as the bees aren't in a bad mood, their response is limited to a second or so of heightened buzzing and they go back to what they were doing. If they take longer to settle down I know that something has them on edge. Maybe they've lost their queen. Maybe they're preparing to swarm. To find out what's wrong I'll have to open the hive and inspect, but at least I'll know going in that they're already on edge and I can prepare accordingly.

Of course, as you can no doubt imagine, if I were to start knocking on their hive repeatedly, it wouldn't take long before the honeybees would come out and explain to me that I should stop. It wouldn't matter how contented or on edge they were. If I knock enough they'll respond, sooner or later, but they will respond.

Well, if you start slapping the side of their hive with the lines of your string trimmer, that's exactly what your doing. Whether you're hitting the hive directly, or the foundation it sits on (if is conducts sound/impacts well enough), you're triggering your honeybees. I don't care how docile they are, eventually they'll decide that enough is enough.

Similarly, the loud sound of the engine of your lawn mower can trigger honeybees. If they're docile enough it might not, certainly not as surely as actually hitting the hive, but it can.

So whether you're string trimming or mowing, it's best to suit up first, and then do your work quickly but carefully, and get out of there.

Trigger #3: COx

There is one other aspect of mowing that will definitely trigger your honeybees. Engine exhaust will trigger honeybees.

Specifically, it's the COx (CO, CO2,...) components of the exhaust that trigger the honeybees. So if you're mowing with an internal combustion engine powered lawn mower, make a point of having the exhaust spraying away from the hive when you pass. The sound may take awhile to trigger them, but COx will not.

There's another lesson to learn here. If a honeybee lands on you, do not try to gently blow on her to make her leave. First of all, she's probably just foraging salt and minerals in your perspiration. Sorry, but she's not being affectionate toward you. The point is that she's not posing any kind of threat to you, but that can change quickly if you blow on her.

I know. In your mind blowing on her is the gentlest way to make her move. But that's only true in your mind. Would you consider any breeze capable of physically moving you any kind of "gentle?" Neither will she.

Moreover, what is the principle component of your exhaled breath? That's right, carbon dioxide (CO2). To the honeybee that gentle breath is a gale force wind of trigger. If you blow on a honeybee you are screaming at the top of your lungs...

"STING SOMETHING! STING ANYTHING! DO IT NOW!!!"

Frankly, when one of my honeybees lands on me I let her. She's not hurting me in the slightest. But if you just need to get her off of you, very gently brush her away (with a sideways motion, not with any downward/crushing pressure) with your fingertip.

Now there's one more lesson to take away here. I don't know how much this applies to you, but I am old and fat. Between broken bones and bullet holes, I just ain't as resilient as I used to be. Repeatedly lifting heavy boxes wears me out fast, and working in the heat, especially when wearing a full bee suit,... I get winded in no time.

And when I'm winded I start to breathe hard. That's kind of what "winded" means.

Now think about what happens when you start "breathing hard," especially on days when there's little or no wind (because you wouldn't be working your hives if it were windy). You exhale copious amounts of CO2, which sort of builds up in a cloud of higher concentration around your head. This is even more true if you're wearing a veil.

Well, that CO2 cloud will become a trigger for any bees that fly out to see what you're up to. And it doesn't help that you're probably a bit shakier when you're winded. But in any case, you can find your bees start to transition from curious to agitated to full on defensive, just because you're continuing to work them while "breathing hard."

So if you find yourself breathing a little harder than normal, stop and take a break for a few minutes. Catch your breath. Your honeybees will thank you.

That Banana Smell

In fact, it was just such a circumstance the first time I smelled "that banana smell." I was horribly winded in my veil, panting like a horse that had been rode hard and put up wet. But I was pressing on, as normal, because I still had another dozen hives to inspect.

I soon noticed that the honeybees in this one colony were getting more aggressive as I pressed on, and then I noticed it. It was very faint. I could have easily missed it except I had just read about it earlier that week. Even then I didn't equate the triggering of aggression with my breath. That would come later, but I did notice "that banana smell" for the first time.

You may have heard about that banana smell that bees make when they sting. It's an alarm pheromone (I mentioned it earlier) excreted by the honeybee. And yes, you can smell it yourself.

It is a subtle aroma, so much so that it's easily dismissed and ignored, but you can smell it once enough of them start excreting it. And once you recognize it the first time you can notice it even sooner (in lower concentrations) in the future. So start paying attention when you work your hives. You'll notice it soon enough.

Then you'll be able to stay on alert for "that banana smell" anytime you're working your hives.

As for myself, anytime I get even a whiff of that subtle banana smell, I immediately set down whatever I am holding right where I am and walk away. I don't look around for the best place to place whatever I am holding. If I am holding a frame of brood I lean it against the side of the hive because I won't take time to put it back in position. If I'm holding a smoker I set it on the ground. If I'm holding a hive tool, I lay it on the tops of the frames in the hive. I don't take time to put anything back together. I don't take time to put anything back where it goes. I just set whatever I am holding down and calmly leave the area immediately.

You see, the faster the threat (that's me in this case) goes away, the more quickly the honeybees will calm down. Only then, once they are again calm, do I go back and finish my work. And that would take a lot longer if I insisted on persisting to put things back together.

That's because the honeybees would not interpret such an effort as me being nice, or me trying to be helpful. They would only interpret my continued activity as a continued threat, which would incite even more of them to respond to the alarm, producing even more alarm pheromone, which would take even longer to dissipate (remember that it's not a very windy day) and keep them in an agitated state even longer.

So once you recognize and detect that "banana smell," stop immediately and walk away. Come back to finish up once the honeybees calm down.

Now there's one more thing you should know about that banana smell. It only smells like banana to you and me. It "smells" nothing like bananas to the honeybees. That means you can smear banana all over yourself before working your hives and the honeybees will not care. There has been extensive research done on the subject. Actual banana does not incite honeybees to aggression.