What Makes Friendly Springtime Honey Bees Turn Mean?

My healthiest honey bee colony, one that was always full of mean bees but has been playing extremely nice so far this year, is back to being mean. Any slight vibration on the hive and the bees come pouring out. I’m not sure what reactivated the mean gene, but these bees are definitely not playing nice anymore.

Q1402, back to being mean. (June 10, 2016.)

Defensive bees just beginning to pour out of a hive. (June 10, 2016.)

Things that may have triggered the mean gene (and I’m just making this up):

1) I used smoke on them five days ago for the first time this year. Not much smoke, but I had my smoker on stand by and the bees definitely got a whiff of it. 99% of the time, I use spray mist or nothing at all on my bees. Perhaps smoke, which they haven’t tasted since sometime last year, increased the alarm level of the entire colony and once that bell is wrung, it can’t be unwrung. I don’t think that’s it, but it seems possible.

2) The bees are beginning to make honey and are defending that honey. I’ve had a medium honey super with drawn comb in place for about three weeks. They ignored it until the past few days. There’s a fair number of bees clustering inside the honey super all the time now and there’s always guard bees blocking the top entrance. Maybe. But the bees don’t usually defend the honey until they have a fair bit already stored up.

3) Bad weather. It was at least 18°C (64°F) on May 24th and the bees were loving it. It’s been cold and crappy ever since, well below 10°C (50°f) most days. The cloudy, damp days rub them the wrong way. I have my doubts about that, too, but most beekeepers avoid opening their hives on cloudy days precisely for that reason, so… maybe.

4) The cold weather attracted a mouse into the warm hive and there’s a mouse living at the bottom of the hive. The bees are stressed by it. Although I’ve seen that happen in the fall and winter, I don’t think that’s happening now.

5) The queen is injured or dead. I doubt that the most because she seemed alive and well when I inspected the hive five days ago.

6) I’ve been bothering the bees too much and I’ve put them on a constant state of alert. Possibly, but I doubt that too. I used to leave these bees alone for months and they were never happy no matter how much I ignored them. This bad mood is business as usual.

7) Small colonies, even with the mean gene, are easy to handle, but once they reach a certain critical mass, there’s always at least a few easily alarmed bees hanging around ruining it for everybody, lighting off their alarm pheromones like fireworks inside the hive. Greater numbers create a greater chance of easily alarmed bees getting in the mix. Statically, it has to happen at a certain point. Perhaps this colony reached that critical mass a few days ago. Which might also explain why the honey super has been filling with bees.

8) A nectar dearth. There isn’t an actual nectar dearth, but perhaps being stuck in the hive because of cold weather for more than two weeks has created the conditions of a nectar dearth inside the hive. The bees aren’t robbing other hives like they sometimes do during a dearth (because it’s too cold to go outside), but maybe it’s dearthy enough to agitate them. They’re hungry. Hmm… Maybe I should give them some honey in a jar feeder… I think I might.

The bottom line is I don’t know. But I plan to requeen this colony with a well mated queen as soon as possible.

I know some people claim that the bees become more defensive in the early spring. In my experience, the opposite is true. Without a doubt, the bees are more docile and friendly during the early spring, especially when they’re bringing in the first pollen of the year. The bees are usually mean in the fall after the nectar stops coming in and they have a hive full of honey to defend (if they’re defensive at all, though most don’t seem to go down that road). But bees that are mean, switch to being nice in the early spring and then go back to being mean? I suppose it makes sense. They’ve got the mean gene and that’s all there is to it. Requeen ASAP. What else can you do?

JUNE 11, 2016: The bees in this hive were recently recorded in two videos — back when they were nice. From May 21st:

From June 6th:

It was around the time of the last video that the bees began to turn on me. I hope it’s just the bad weather that’s making them mad.

JUNE 18, 2016: I just noticed a photo from same date the video was recorded that may provide a clue as to what made the bees more defensive.

The bees were crowding the upper entrance, so I decided to open the hive above the honey super enough to relieve the traffic congestion. (June 06, 2016.)

The bees were crowding the upper entrance, so I decided to open the hive above the honey super enough to relieve the traffic congestion. (June 06, 2016.)

It was a relatively hot day. The bees were loitering around the bottom entrance for the first time this year and the top entrance later became so crowded, I decided to slide open the inner cover to relieve the congestion. Now I wonder if opening the hive and leaving it open like that put the bees on guard. Smaller entrances reduce the necessary number of guard bees. Larger entrances require more guard bees — more defensive bees. Perhaps the full opening on top triggered the guarding or defensive response to spread throughout the hive. I had the top nearly blown off one of my hives a few winters ago. I remember those bees were also very defensive a few days later when I discovered the partially opened hive.

JUNE 20, 2016: I did a full inspection of his hive yesterday and the bees are back to being nice.

JULY 28, 2016: A suddenly larger top entrance with a larger area to defensive seems to turn the bees more defensive. To slid open a hive full nice bees that became defensive only after I gave them a larger entrance to guard. There’s always alternate explanations for the bees’ behaviour, but I’m going with this one for now.

4 thoughts on “What Makes Friendly Springtime Honey Bees Turn Mean?

  1. These bees were always mean. Seeing them so docile for the past few months, you’d never guess they were ever mean. But they’re mean. I just got back from doing a test. I blew into the top entrance of each of my hives. The bees buzzed for a few seconds and then calmed down — except in ole meany. Those bees immediately launched them themselves at me. And I ran away. I’ll be glad to requeen the hive.

    I picked up a mean queen three or four years ago. The subsequent colony was unworkable. It produced a massive amount of honey, but other than putting on honey supers and removing them, I had to leave it alone as much as possible. That colony was eventually destroyed by shrews and I was happy for it. Unfortunately, the queen in the mean colony I have now mated with some of the drones from the original mean colony, and so I now have a colony with the mean gene. It’s hard to believe, but the bees in this colony are about half as mean as the original mean colony.

    I’ll be glad when my the hives in my beeyard are normal again.

    If I ever get another mean queen, I’ll immediately requeen the colony or kill the queen and combine with another colony. It’s just not worth it.

  2. I did a full inspection of this hive today. The bees are back to be nice again. Not a single sign of defensiveness.

    Cracking open the top of the hive on June 6th and leaving it open for the day may have got their backs up for a while. Or maybe it was the weather.

    Since they turned mean (around June 6th), I’ve done two things:

    1) I haven’t touched the hive.

    2) I reduced the bottom entrance, thinking less space to guard means less guard bees to get defensive.

    The weather has been garbage for most of the past two weeks. As in cold.

    I’m not sure what to think.

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