The following was copied and pasted from a response I gave to someone who was concerned about her neighbour’s plan to set up a beehive in a yard close to where her children play. (Read her comment here.) I decided to turn my response into a post because I’ve received emails from other people with similar concerns. I also made this short video to help ease the irrational response many people immediately have towards anything that looks like a bee.
I’m just some guy with a blog, not a master beekeeper. I’m no longer obsessed by bees or beekeeping (at least not while I’m restricted by what I can do living in my urban neighbourhood), so whatever you get from me is a moderately informed opinion based on my limited experience. For a more informed response, you might want to repeat your question over at Honey Bee Suite.
Every person who has told me that they hate bees, is afraid of bees or is allergic to bees, has never been stung or bothered by honey bees. No offense, but that’s why I may have a biased attitude towards “non-bee” people who tend to have irrational, uninformed reactions to anything that remotely resembles a bee. They need to get their facts straight.
Nevertheless, I understand your concern about a neighbour setting up a bee hive close to your children. Chances are, if your neighbour goes through with it, you’ll never know the bees are there. You may occasionally see bees flying around some flowers in your yard, but they’re harmless. Even if you see more bees in your flowering tree, you’d have to whack at them violently with a stick before they’d ever act defensively. In my experience with bees in trees and on flowers, you can virtually stick your face right in the flower with them and they’ll ignore you.
The honey bees will only bother you if you bother them by getting too close to their hive. If you’re not in the same yard as the hive, then you’re probably out of any potential line of fire. Honey bees are docile and friendly 99% of the time. The bees need to perceive you as a serious threat to their colony before they’ll shift into any kind of defensive behaviour. Playing Ring-Around-The-Rosey with the hive, banging a ball up against it, kicking it, spraying it with a hose — that kind of thing. But even then, the last thing a honey bee wants to do is sting. Most of the time, if you stay away from the hive, at least 10 or 15 feet away, the bees will stay away from you.
Don’t worry about the dog. Dogs or cats that get too close to a bee hive will get stung once and instantly learn to live peacefully with the bees by leaving them alone. (Check out Cats vs. Bees for more on this.) Most dogs and cats, I think, are smart enough to stay away in first place.
A swarm may sound scary, but it’s not. In my experience, the bees are in their most friendly mood after swarming. They have no reason to act defensively during a swarm because they have no hive to protect. A swarm may look and sound scary, but it’s harmless. If you happen to see a swarm and you want to play it safe, just go inside for about 30 minutes. The bees will have found a place to hang out by then and you can call the beekeeper to come collect the bees if they’re in your property. Swarms might be inconvenient, but they won’t hurt anyone. Here’s a video of a swarm that demonstrates how docile they are.
If I had children, my only concerns with having a bee hive close by would be:
1) Honey bees can get a little more defensive in the fall when they’re no longer bringing in nectar. If the bees normally defend an area of 3 or 4 feet around the hive throughout the spring and summer (if they’re defensive at all), that area can expand to about 20 feet in the fall. In my experience, usually only one bee would buzz me in the head when I got within that 20 foot perimeter in the fall, but once it got a bead on me, it wouldn’t leave me alone. I never got stung, but for about a week in the fall, I couldn’t go out in my small backyard without being pestered. (The bees in most of the hives ignored me, though, even in the fall.) If your neighbour’s hive is within 20 feet of where your children play, they could be pestered by the bees in the fall. That’s less likely if your neighbour’s yard is fenced in with a solid fence.
2) Bees will act more defensively towards bad beekeepers who don’t act calmly. When I was learning how to inspect my hives, I never did it while my neighbours were outside just in case I disturbed the bees too much. (The one time I was forced to do a full inspection while my next door neighbour was around, that’s when they called the fire department on me to complain about my killer bees.)
3) Bees are attracted to pools and puddles of water. Maybe it’s the chlorine in the water that they like. I don’t know. The bees probably wouldn’t hang around if kids were splashing water everywhere because they don’t like to get wet, but you might find bees drinking at the pool’s edge when the kids aren’t around. I’ve seen bees, never in large numbers, drinking from a leaky hose on the ground, but I’ve never had to deal with them near a pool, so I can’t speak to that.
I would talk to your neighbour about your concerns. Ask them if they have a plan for dealing with potential swarms. Hopefully your neighbour knows what they’re doing and would be willing to move the hive if the bees somehow bothered anyone.
P.S. (May 05/13): However… Some hives are just full of grumpy bees. One of my hives in the country is like that and it always has been. Those bees are defensive no matter what time of the year it is. They start buzzing me in the head as soon as they see me anywhere near their hive, usually just one or two bees, but they’ll follow me wherever I go, even if I walk 50 metres away from the hive. I wouldn’t want bees like that anywhere close to my house. They may not go in for a sting but it sure feels like they’re about to. I plan to requeen that hive as soon as possible.