I’m not an expert on dealing with a robbing frenzy because I hardly ever see it. I think I’ve only had it happen once, a few years ago when I spilled some sugar syrup spiked with anise extract in my beeyard. And… I did it again.
One of my beehives, back in January 2019, had its top blown off in a windstorm. The top cover — along with the inner cover and hard insulation — might have been removed in other ways, but the point is, the colony of honey bees trying to stay alive inside the hive were completely exposed to the elements for about a week. The elements included high winds, rain, freezing rain, hail and snow. Hence, the title of this post: These Bees Should Be Dead.
Not exactly what you like to find when visiting a beeyard in the winter. (January 2019.)
When I approached the hive, I didn’t expect the bees to be alive. I found dark soggy clumps of dead bees on the back edges of the top bars. Some burr comb over the top bars had lost its colour from being exposed to the elements. The frames were soaking wet with a sheen of mould growing on the surface. Ice clogged up the bottom entrance. So yeah, I expected to find nothing but dead bees inside that hive.
The Wailing Wailers recorded a cover version of “I Made a Mistake,” by The Impressions, sometime in the ’60s, and if it wasn’t for copyright laws, it would be the soundtrack to the following video:
Something I’ve learned from beekeeping over the years is that’s okay to make mistakes, even big ones. It might be better than living in a fantasy world. If we’re not open to making mistakes, we never really learn or get good at anything.
The following is probably the most detailed video of a hive inspection that I’ve posted since the dawn of Mud Songs. For everyone who couldn’t attend the informal beekeeping workshop I had planned to put on today, this video shows what you missed (or would have missed if I’d gone ahead with the workshop). It’s a 24-minute video, which is longer than my usual videos because I left in the all the parts with me yammering on about what I’m doing — exactly the kind of yammering I’d do if I was giving a workshop.
Newfoundland supposedly has some of the gentlest honey bees in North America. Maybe so. But speaking from my experience and the experience of some other NL beekeepers I know, sometimes you just get a bad batch of bees. Here’s a video that shows some of the defensive behaviour of honey bees:
In my experience, when a honey bee feels threatened enough to sting — which is rare — there’s little or no warning. It will launch itself towards you like a fighter jet and you’ll feel the sting the instant it makes contact. A less defensive behaviour is what I call the head-butting dance. It’s when one or two bees fly in circles around your head and bounce off your face a few times to drive you away from the hive. They won’t sting you, but you’ll get the message that it’s time to go.
I’ve already written about my switch to rubber bee gloves. I wear them because they’re more tactical than goat skin gloves, but boy oh boy do they ever fill up with sweat in no time. Here’s what my fingers looked like after about an hour of beekeeping in the sun today:
Wrinkled fingers after sweating in rubber gloves. (June 10, 2015.)
And my hands stink like rubber. I still prefer them over goat skin. I’ll wear goat skin when I want extra protection from bees that I know I’m going to upset, or in the winter for warmth. But I think I’ll invest in several pairs of rubber gloves so I can strip them off, dry my hands and put on a fresh pair every 30 minutes or so. It wouldn’t hurt. By the time I was finished with the bees today, I could feel the sweat trapped inside the fingers of the gloves squirting around every time I gripped onto something.
June 2019 Introduction: If I found a hive with this much capped brood in the top box today, I’m pretty sure I’d steal some of the brood to boost up any weaker colonies. Do the math: 1 frame of capped brood = 3 frames of bees. I found 7 frames of capped brood, which adds up to 21 frames of new bees in a colony with only 20 frames. So the thing to do there is to make more room. Either expand the brood nest by adding another deep or load up some honey supers to give the exploding population something to do. I would normally never leave a hive split up like I do in this video, but the bees were so defensive, digging into my shoes and cuffs and everywhere else, I had to bounce before they got me good.
The hive in the video has been off by itself in the woods for more than a year because the colony has always been full of the meanest bees I’ve ever seen. I have added honey supers to the hive but I’ve never inspected the brood nest, never manipulated or disturbed it in any way. I finally decided to inspect the hive yesterday, by dismantling it and rebuilding it in a sunnier spot, because I noticed the bees filling the honey super with pollen and something about that just didn’t seem right. I found seven frames of solid capped brood in the top deep of the hive (I would expect the brood nest to be in the bottom at this time of year). I didn’t inspect the bottom deep because the bees got too riled up and one bee even got inside my veil (I squished it before it could sting me).
I returned today to inspect the final deep and add it to the hive in its new location. The first frame I inspected was empty and several woodlouse were crawling around the edges of the comb. I’ve noticed woodlouse (also known as carpenters in Newfoundland) inside most of my hives; I don’t know if they’re harmful. I was unwilling to inspect more than one frame because — I admit it — I was scared of the bees. They were constantly bouncing off my veil whenever I got close, obscuring my vision at times. A standard bee hat and veil, secured by cutting edge technology known as string, seem ridiculously inadequate under such circumstances. The open hive boiled over with bees, all of them aiming for my face.
It was unnerving. I probably would have been better off leaving the bees alone. What do I care if I have to deal with a few frames of pollen mixed in with the honey? I still don’t know exactly what’s going on with the bees in this hive. I’m interested but I’m not that interested. I wish them well.
Postscript: This is the only defensive colony I’ve experienced since I started beekeeping in 2010. It makes more honey than any of my other colonies. That’s the main reason I’ve never requeened it. If I still had my hives in the city, I would have requeened the colony immediately. All of my other bees are friendly and gentle, a real pleasure to be around most of the time.
A honey bee from a normally friendly colony stung me in the arm today because I was wearing a black t-shirt. I often wear minimal or no protective clothing around this particular colony because I know the bees are not at all defensive (not at this time of the year, anyway). Today was no different, except I forgot I was wearing a black t-shirt. As soon as I opened the hive, I noticed a few bees zig-zagging back and forth like they were hyped up on caffeine — not at all a relaxed flight pattern.
Once the bees start whipping around like wasps, it’s time to turn around and leave. Come back later with a veil and gloves and a smoker. But I thought, “Nah, these bees —f%$#@!” Zap, right under the sleeve of my t-shirt. The little bugger got me good.
I’ve been told many times not to wear black around honey bees because, supposedly, honey bees have evolved to be more defensive around anything big and black. Most creatures in the natural world that are big and black (e.g., black bears) are a threat to honey bee colonies. When honey bees see something big and black coming their way, it’s usually better for them to sting now and ask questions later.
I’ve heard how the bees will even sting the ankles of people wearing black socks, but I wear black boots every time I’m around my bees and I’ve never seen them go for the boots. For a variety of reasons, I didn’t take much stock in these particular campfire stories — until day. My single experience of wearing a black t-shirt and getting stung for the first time around some bees that aren’t normally defensive isn’t much of a data set. It can’t be used to arrive at any kind of scientific conclusion. But I’d rather not wait for science if it means I have to get stung a few more times in order to prove the black bear hypothesis. Getting stung once is enough. I’m a believer. I’ll avoid wearing black around my bees again.
August 8th, 2014: For the sake of science, I wore black and then white around the same hive of bees. The bees came in for the sting while I was wearing black and ignored me while I was wearing white. Case closed. Closed enough, anyway.
June 2019 Introduction: I use regular dishwashing gloves all the time now, though I use my bare hands when I can, when I know the bees are in a good mood. I wouldn’t mind having a pair of goat skin gloves for the rare occasion when I need to dig into a defensive colony, but I just haven’t gotten around to buying another pair.
The standard issue goat skin bee gloves designed for beekeepers can get sweaty. Here’s a photo of my hand after beekeeping in 20Â°C heat (68Â°F) for about half an hour — and it usually gets a lot sweatier than this:
I recently experimented with using heavy duty rubber gloves, slightly thicker than dish washing gloves. They don’t breathe at all but provide a better feel than goat coat skin. NOTE: Gloves that don’t have long cuffs and therefore don’t provide wrist protection aren’t so great. Blue medical examination gloves, the kind dentists use, are even thinner than dish washing gloves. The bees can easily sting through them and they offer no wrist protection. I’ve gone barehanded at times, too, but only when I’m not digging too deep into a hive.
August 2nd, 2014: I’ve been using heavy duty rubber gloves for about two months now and I haven’t had any problems with them other than the fact that my hands get instantly sweaty and the sweat accumulates in the fingers of the gloves after about an hour. For hygienic reasons, I try (but usually forget) to wash them in soapy water after every use and then hang up to dry. The bees, when determined, can sting through them. I got stung today for the first time. It wasn’t a deep sting but a surprising sting nonetheless. I wouldn’t use rubber gloves with defensive bees or during any kind of beekeeping that could rile up the bees. But for everyday maintenance and poking around, the heavy duty rubber gloves are the gloves for me. They’re more tactile, and even though they’re sweaty, I don’t get nearly as hot wearing them as I do with goat skin gloves. I’m not trying to advertise a specific brand of rubber gloves, but the ones I bought from a big box hardware store are described as “Long Cuff Neoprene Gloves.”
August 28th, 2015: I can’t remember the last time I used my goat skin gloves. I use a variety of rubber gloves instead. Regular dishwashing gloves are fine. They don’t have to be heavy duty (though that doesn’t hurt). The bees can still sting through them, but that’s rare and the stinger never gets in too deep, so it’s not a problem. The gloves are always wet with sweat on the inside, but they flip inside-out when I take them off and dry quickly when hung up. I blow them up like balloons to inflate the fingers if they’re crumpled up. There’s a good chance I’ll never buy goat skin or leather bee gloves again.
A curious note: I get more SPAM comments for this post than anything I’ve written on Mud Songs. The comments are clearly written by real people too — people trying to sell me their brand of rubber gloves. There’s probably a group of rubber glove manufacturers who think, “If we could break into the beekeeping market, we’d be rich!” That’s fine with me. Send me a box of rubber gloves with long cuffs (some large gloves for my big man hands and small gloves for my partner’s hands). I’ll use them in my beekeeping for a full year and write-up an honest review of them when I’m done. I have no problem promoting a product that has been helpful in my beekeeping.
April 2019 Introduction: This is an excellent video that shows the difference in size and shape of a queen that is laying well and one that isn’t. The one that’s laying well has a long abdomen that goes way past the tips of her wings. The one that isn’t laying well is almost stubby looking compared to the other queen, and as it turns out, the stubby queen got stubbier and stop laying altogether.
I spotted three, maybe four queens during my hive inspections today, but I only managed to get two of them on video and in focus.
Note to self: Smoke the bees before stealing a few frames from the bottom honey super. The bees are protective of their honey this time of year (if not all the time).
The bees one of my hives are smoking hot these days, ploughing through their honey supers at an impressive rate. Instead of adding a third honey super to the hive (which the bees might not be able to fill), I decided to pull three frames of honey from the bottom honey super and replace them with empty frames.
Two of the frames are foundationless. I’ll crush and strain them like I did with my first frame of honey. The other one will have to be extracted. I’m not sure how I’ll managed that yet. At any rate, this is my last post for the next couple weeks. By the time I post anything new, I’ll have harvested and probably bottled all of my honey — possibly up to 30 frames of honey. I’ll record videos and take photos of it all. See you later.
September 6ht, 2011: The bees have become extremely defensive since I took the honey from the hive — without using smoke. Within minutes of going in the backyard, I’ve got two or three bees buzzing around my head. I’ve never seen them this bad before. I’m managing it for now, but my backyard may be too small this for four hives. When the bees get defensive, it’s not good at all. I think I may have seen my next door neighbour swatting at some bees in his backyard. I hope they weren’t bees, but it’s possible. This could be very bad. I have to remember for now on to use smoke when pulling honey so the the bees don’t associate my scent, or human scent, with danger. This isn’t a good day. See What makes bees aggressive? from Honey Bee Suite for more info.
March 2019 Postscript: Beekeeping can be a little tricky at times, but I’d say it’s trickier in an urban or suburban environment because of the lack of space. When the bees get grumpy, it’s hard to avoid them. If I kept bees in an urban environment again, I would take extra steps not to disturb the bees or my neighbours. If I had to do a major invasive hive inspection — for example, to check for swarm cells — I would plan to do it at a time when I know my neighbours aren’t in their backyards. Once bees get defensive, they can easily fly over a fence and start head-butting and chasing humans who happen to get in their line of fire. The bees need to be handled with more gentleness and with consideration of close neighbours in an urban environment. It doesn’t take much for things to get a little out of hand.