Dealing with a Defensive Colony.

Soothing lavender for bees and their keepers.

The Problem.

Have you ever had to destroy a colony because it became downright dangerous to the public? Fortunately, I’ve never been in that position, so far, and any defensive colony in my care has settled down once the causative problems resolved. However, I wouldn’t hesitate to destroy one if I had to.

This season it was a queenless period that brought out the stingers from one colony but that soon settled when the new queen was established and laying. In other cases I’ve been involved with the problems resolved as soon as the beekeepers helped the colony build up food stores again.

Difficult colonies can make beekeeping a nightmare and take away the pleasure. Bees are wild animals so we have no control over their actions but we can learn a lot by observing them and having some idea of what is going on inside the hive.

By difficult I mean the bees run on the comb during every inspection making management challenging because you can never find the queen: you are always looking at a sea of fast-moving bees. Bees ping off your veil and sting at every chance. Bees follow you after inspections and sting passers-by over 20 meters away.

Aggressive colonies cannot be tolerated because they sting without direct provocation at anyone within range. The public is probably less tolerant today in our litigious sociey.

What to Do?

It depends on where your colony is situated. Beekeepers on allotments, and where they have neighbours close by, have a duty of care to fellow gardeners and the passing public so they need to site their colony hives in a suitable place to start with. On allotments, they need to be well away from view and paths and be surrounded on all sides by screens that direct foragers up and above head height so they cannot tangle in someone’s hair.

Some say that allotments are not suitable places to keep bees but there are others who report success in this environment. I can remember some years ago one local allotment association was so keen to have bees that it sent out calls to local beekeepers asking if anyone wanted to site a colony in their midst. I helped a beekeeper site his colony in what we thought would be the safest place, but inevitably someone was stung and complained. The outcome was immediate removal of the colony and the allotment rules changed to forbid honey bee colonies.

There will always be times of the year when the guard bees are less tolerant and undoubtedly someone will be stung by bees at any location though perhaps not often. However, the responsible beekeeper ensures that they can move the bees immediately to another location, or deal with the problem, as soon as a colony became aggressive.

Changing the Queen.

Having considered and remedied things such as food stores, improving beekeeper handling techniques, and apiary location, which might be shaded, damp and unsuitable, then the next solution would be to requeen. It is not a fast fix and it will take around 3 weeks before you see a change in temperament.

Moving Bees.

Moving bees to a new location moves the problem on somewhere else but if you own land and can do this without impacting on neighbours then it might work well. I heard of someone who moved his super-defensive colony from a village to the edge of a golf course in town which sounded like a risky move and not to be recommended.

Dividing up the Colony.

Sometimes a colony is defensive because it has built up into a very strong unit and breaking it up into several nuclei can solve the problem but you would need to have queens available for that strategy.

Destroying the Colony.

Harsh as it might seem, sometimes destroying the colony is the most responsible thing to do if the bees are a danger to others. To do it safely you prepare during the day by taking off the honey and placing a screen board above the brood frames. Reduce the entrance and place a floor insert below the brood box.

In the evening you close the entrance and pour over the top screen a quarter to half a pint of petrol. The roof is replaced and you return in the morning to clear up. The colony dies fairly quickly from the toxic petrol fumes. A word of warning though: petrol fumes are unpleasant to inhale and dangerous if you have a lit smoker nearby. Take care to have nothing that may ignite nearby when you use petrol to destroy a colony.

Next day you bag up the dead bees to dispose of, and burn the combs and frames. The brood box is aired then cleaned the usual way.

You might also use soapy water instead of petrol but a bucketful is needed. I’ve only ever used petrol.

How to Find the Queen?

Easier said than done perhaps but here are some tips. Bring in one or more beekeepers to help, and get kitted out in your most protective bee suits and gear. Dispense with the nitrile gloves on this occasion and find the most robust gloves and gauntlets. Have 2 smokers going in case one fails. You could use tobacco in the smoker as it has a narcotic effect on the bees but be warned it could lead to robbing later as the guard bees might be feeling too mellow and off guard.

Remove the super/s from this hive and place them on the original hive site on a floor etc. If there are no supers then place an empty brood box with preferrably drawn foundation and frames.Take the remaining hive and stand (with queen) and place it a minimum of 10 meters away in another part of the apiary. The reason for this is that the foragers will leave the colony and return to supers on the original site. This depletes the population that you have to search through for the queen, and the house bees left at home will be less aggressive. If you leave this brood box alone for a few hours it will be easier to find the queen because more foragers will have left.

Remember that using a lot of smoke makes finding the queen harder but if you smoke the entrance well and leave them for 5 minutes for the bees to feed on stores it may help. So often people smoke the entrance routinely but don’t actually wait for the bees to feed.

If you haven’t found the queen, after checking the dark side of all the frames first, then you can place the frames in pairs in another brood box and most often the queen will hide away from the light between two of these frames.

On finding the queen destroy her immediately and either let this colony requeen themselves, or introduce a new queen. Move the colony back to the orginal site and replace the supers. The safest way to requeen in my experience is by uniting with a nucleus containing the new queen. However, there are other ways such as in a slow release cage where you take control of the release when the bees are accepting of her. Bearing in mind that the colony is probably going to be even angrier without their queen, I would go for the option that requires less handling.

Blog News.

First batch of heather honey from out apairy.

August flew past in a purple haze here and the heather is still brilliant. Welcome to all the new beelistener subscribers, and thank you to all of you who generously donated towards the website upkeep, maintenance and content refreshment. Hello to new readers from Zimbabwe and Thailand. Beelistener now reaches 106 countries.

Bee Hunting Expedition.

Intrepid hunters: Linton on left, and Stephen from Cork via Inverness.

We chose a day towards the end of the season when there was not such a tremendous nectar flow on that the bees would turn down the offer of aniseed flavoured sugar water. Or so we thought. However, the weather was not truly kind being overcast and chilly towards the end of the afternoon.

We gave it our best shot tramping through thick heather below Scots pines near the shooting range close to Achneim. It was really pleasant smelling the sweet scent of heather and watching nearly every pollinator, except lots of honey bees, working it: we saw a total 3 honey bees !

Thick clumps of juicy blaeberries made up for the dearth of honey bees and we ate some and made our way to Achneim steading to try our luck on the last of the rosebay willow herb. We all caught bees there and managed to follow Tom Seeley’s clear instructions in Following the Wild Bees.

We let the bees have a quiet feed in the dark box for 5 minutes before releasing them and watching the directions of flight. It is so much easier to do this with a team of friends. It was too late for the bees to return with their nest mates to our sugar syrup lure, but we learned where 2 of them lived which was exciting as they flew south west in the direction of the forest and may be from a wild/free-living colony. The others flew towards a known apiary and the wild colony nearby that I am observing. I plan to try again before the end of the season on a warmer sunnier day.

Fungus Foray.

It is one of the best seasons ever for mushrooms and I love this Meripilus giganteus from the Meripilacea family which sits under an ancient beech tree. Apparently it is edible but I think I will give it a miss and leave it looking beautiful.

Now these amazing chanterelles I did eat and they were delicious. They were hidden under dense gorse and very tricky to pick so they tasted ever better for the effort.

More Wild Bees.

When I was at the out- apiary in my friend’s wonderful orchard I spotted 3 separate entrances in the wall of the walled garden where honey bees were coming and going from.

What is interesting is that many years ago the fruit trees growing close to the wall were heated in spring by fires so the wall has several chimneys built into it. It may well be that these colonies are residing in the chimneys. Otherwise it is very difficult to understand how they can have enough room to thrive in a wall. I’ll be reporting this find to Magnus Peterson in Dunblane who studies “feral” bees.

8 thoughts on “Dealing with a Defensive Colony.”

  1. Requeening with a different line will result in neighbouring colonies becoming aggressive over the next year or two (F2 crosses). Supersedure allowing the local landrace to stabilise in your hive is not only simpler, but less work down the line. Bee breeders claim local bees make their lines aggressive – actually they’re the source of the problem, sending non local queens to areas they’re not matched to. Buckfasts are notorious for this, being an unstable artificial hybrid. F2 nightmare.

  2. I agree that keeping aggressive bees does not rhyme with responsible beekeeping. I’ve managed to get the temper more in line on one of my colonies, but it has taken 2 requeenings/supersedures before a noticeable result was seen. Both sibling colonies that came out of the 2nd split this Spring is now well behaved (luckily).

    Chanterelles – ahh – there’s a soft spot with me. Unfortunately I don’t think we have them around here, but went mushroom hunting when I visited my daughter outside Gothenburg last autumn, and found an abundance – what joy.

      1. Agree. Especially the Boletus edulis is my favourite. You don’t need to find many of them to have a good meal.

  3. Good work on discovering the three wild colonies living in the stone wall of the orchard. Fascinating. I look forward to reading about what you learn about the longevity of these wild colonies and about their nesting sites (whether or not they are old chimney flues. Do you plan to use a sighting of bees bearing pollen loads as they enter a site as your indicator of a live colony there?

    1. Yes, Tom, I do plan to look for pollen loads going in when spring starts next year as an indicator of overwinter survival. I will be sending information for Magnus Peterson’s study, and your own. Thank you for commenting.

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