Homeowner's Guide to Honeybees

 

This guide is provided as a resource to property owners with discussion of the following subjects:

    1. The nesting of honeybees and how to prevent it,
    2. The removal of honeybees,
    3. Typical behaviors of honeybees, and
    4. Elements of risk associated with the presence of honeybees.

 

Nesting of honeybees

Honeybees are social insects and, as such. they function in a group referred to as a colony. The center of the colony's activity is in a nest constructed of wax combs. Enormous effort and resources are expended by the colony to build its nest.

Usually, a honeybee nest is built within a cavity having a constricted entrance. The cavity is typically a space of at least two to three cubic feet. The entrance, being narrow, is easy for the honeybees to defend. The honeycomb in the nest is ordinarily suspended from a horizontal surface.

However, honeybees will sometimes build a nest in open spaces like a carport or under an eave as shown in the photo to the right. They can also build nests in places like discarded tires and 55-gallon drums.

The nest is used for shelter, the raising of brood and for storage of food stores to be drawn upon when food is not available for forage within flight range or when weather is inclement. Not surprisingly, the colony will protect and defend its nest as a matter of survival.

Once the colony has established a nest, the colony is difficult to remove, particularly if it is located in an attic, a stud wall, crawl space or similar cavity.

The population of a colony will change through the year. The population of a colony "in the wild" during the summer months can typically rise to over 30,000.

Africanized honeybees and European strains of honeybees have very similar nesting behavior. Africanized honeybees will inhabit smaller cavities and are more likely to accept a nesting site in the ground.

Tip: The best defense against the nesting of honeybees is to seal or close off entrances to any cavity where honeybees may nest. It is MUCH easier to prevent nesting than to remove an active colony after it has established a nesting site.

Other typical behaviors of honeybees

Swarming--In addition to raising brood, honeybees have a secondary reproductive strategy. An established colony will split itself in order to establish a second colony at another location.

Usually, the queen and about half of the colony's worker bees will form the departing swarm. The honeybees begin to prepare for their departure several days in advance. The swarm leaves in the late morning and often occurs after a period of poor weather days. The height of the swarm season is in the late spring or early summer giving swarms the opportunity to build a nest and lay in food stores before winter. Late season swarms can occur and a colony may issue more than one swarm.

In advance of swarming, the worker honeybees will gorge themselves on honey. This stimulates their wax glands so that they are able to construct wax combs at their new nest site with amazing quickness. The queen is therefore given a place to lay eggs soon after settling in and the colony's population growth is facilitated.

Often, after departure the swarm will temporarily settle at an interim location while scout honeybees (refer to scouting flight section below) are trying to locate a suitable nesting site. The picture at right shows a swarm in such a position. Since the swarm has no nest, brood, or stores at this stage, the honeybees will typically not act defensively. However, as time passes without finding a nesting site, the swarm can become progressively more easily disturbed.

Africanized honeybees and European strains of honeybees have very similar swarming behavior. Africanized honeybee colonies tend to cast off swarms more frequently and their swarms have been known to travel a distance of more than sixty miles before establishing their nest site.

Tip: Be vigilant for the appearance of a swarm on or near your property. Call a beekeeper or a pest control service immediately so that the swarm can be collected before it enters a nesting cavity. A swarm is very easy to capture, but you should NOT attempt to do it yourself. Also, do NOT attempt to drive it away from your property.

 

Scouting flights--Worker honeybees will conduct flights for the purpose of scouting. They are looking for forage or, when in or nearing the swarming stage, they will be looking for a suitable nesting site for the swarm.

These comments are directed to scouting for a nesting site. An observer can readily identify this behavior. Usually, a dozen or more scouts are methodically evaluating the prospects in a given area (under eaves, along wall surfaces and other places of possible shelter). They will enter a cavity to evaluate it.

The scout honeybees will hover in flight while facing toward the area being examined. It is usually obvious that these honeybees are not engaged in normal foraging or robbing activity because forage targets (pollen, nectar and water) are absent from the area.

Tip: If you are aware of the presence of a swarm or if you know that a nesting colony is near your property, watch for the appearance of scout honeybees. They are a sign that a swarm may be about to take up residence on your property. You may be able to thwart its attempt by sealing the entrance to any cavity in which the scouts are showing interest.

Orientation flights--As a worker honeybee ages, it progresses through a series of duties within the nest and nesting cavity. Eventually the worker has matured to the point where it is capable of foraging. Because the worker has not been outside the nesting site before, it must become firmly oriented to the location of the nest before it ventures away from it to forage. Orientation flights are taken for that purpose. These usually occur in the early afternoon immediately in front of the nest at and near the entrance. Honeybees engaged in this behavior fly and hover while facing the entrance to the nest cavity.

During the period when orientation flights are taking place, there will be an increased number of honeybees in motion at the entrance. This is normal and should be expected.

Clustering--During the evening and during cold weather, they honeybees will usually retreat to the confines of the colony's nest cavity. During the spring and summer, the honeybees will begin to stir before dawn and will be active until after sunset.

During cold weather, the honeybees will form a spherical cluster within the nest cavity around their brood. This behavior allows them to regulate temperature (minimum of 93 degrees F.) within the sphere in order to incubate the queen's eggs.

Bees begin to form the cluster when ambient air temperature drops into the upper forties. Virtually, all the honeybees in the colony participate in the clustering when the temperature drops into the thirties. There is almost no flight activity when the temperature drops into the thirties as the honeybees become easily chilled.

Caution: During times when the honeybees are in cluster, do not assume that the honeybees have gone away because you cannot see any flight activity. They can and will leave the cluster to defend the colony so don't be careless or let down your guard.

Cleansing flights--During periods of cold or inclement weather, honeybees will remain within the nest cavity. They do not expel biological waste during those periods of confinement. Instead, they wait until the weather improves and then they will take what are referred to as cleansing flights.

They expel waste while in flight. After a few days of poor weather have passed, you may notice small stains on you car windshield that resembles a small spot of mustard. That is honeybee waste.

Tip: In order to prevent stains on your laundry, you will not want to hang out your laundry during a period when honeybees are engaged in cleansing flights. They will be most active in this behavior just as the ambient air temperature reaches the low to mid forties (Fahrenheit).

Foraging --The worker honeybees actively forage for water, plant nectars, pollen and plant resins. This activity is usually conducted over a broad area away from the nesting site. The honeybees engaged in this activity are quite busy and preoccupied and aren't prone to defensive behavior unless provoked to defend itself (as opposed to the group defense of the colony). As the population of a colony increases, a higher percentage of that population participates in foraging.

Because of the presence of sugars, foraging honeybees can be drawn to beverages like soda or other items that contain corn syrup. For that reason, trash should be placed into closed bags.

Tip: Resist the urge to swat at a honeybee when it comes near so as not to cause it to become defensive. That is your best action to avoid a sting from a solitary honeybee. Teach your children to use this restraint. Although a honeybee may come very near, it is using its sense of smell to seek out forage.

Bearding--Upon occasion, a large number of honeybees will appear at or near the entrance to their nest cavity. They will be clinging to each other and will be showing a limited amount of movement. Essentially, they are "hanging out on the porch." This phenomenon is referred to as "bearding."

This behavior is linked to environmental influences. The honeybees have moved to the exterior in order to clear the passages within the nest. This allows for increased airflow through the nest. That ventilation is needed to evaporate water from the collected plant nectars making it into honey.

This conduct normally happens during warm, humid weather. It can even occur at night. If you observe this behavior, it is not a cause for alarm.

Robbing--If you observe a frenzy of flight activity at the entrance to a honeybee nest cavity, you are likely witnessing the robbing of one colony by another. During seasonal periods when no nectar sources are available to honeybees, a colony may intrude upon another to steal its nectar and honey.

Although they are engaged in frenzy, the honeybees are preoccupied either in their theft or in the defending of their colony from the intruders so this behavior does not represent a danger.

Defensiveness--Contrary to public opinion, honeybees are NOT aggressive or hostile creatures. This applies even to Africanized honeybees.

Rather, they react defensively to what are perceived to be threats or dangers. Normally, defensive action is oriented to the protection of the colony's nest.

You should realize that honeybees are provoked or stimulated to take defensive action. You should act (accept responsibility) to limit the stimuli to which a colony of honeybees will respond defensively. This action and awareness can prevent the occurrence of serious injury or the death of a family member or pet.

As is commonly known, the defensive behavior of honeybees results in stinging episodes. You should know that the sting of a honeybee releases an alarm scent that immediately draws others from the colony into the fray. Consequently, large numbers of honeybees can become involved and a lethal amount of honeybee venom can be delivered through numerous stings.

Africanized honeybees are much more vigorous in defense of their colonies than European strains giving rise to the term "killer" bees. They originated in a geographic region with a high degree of predation to honeybee colonies; consequently, they've become naturally conditioned to respond accordingly.

Preventive actions you should take:

  1. Regularly survey your premises for the presence of nesting honeybees. Maintain your awareness and vigilance.
  2. Also, identify any potential nesting sites and close them off to prevent nesting.
  3. Do not stake out pets near honeybee nests or confine them to small areas making them incapable of escape.
  4. Control the play of children and other activities that may provoke honeybees to defensiveness. Be aware that noise, poor weather, vibration, dark clothing and fumes or odors can also contribute to defensive behavior of honeybees.
  5. Make it your business to know if any members of your family, or guests to your home, are allergic to honeybee stings. Exercise the appropriate cautions, including having prescription medication available in case a stinging episode occurs.

Tip: If a sting occurs, the stinger and attached venom sac are usually left behind by the honeybee. Do NOT attempt to pull them out. Doing so forces more venom into the wound. Instead, remove the sting by using a scraping motion with a fingernail, credit card or something similar.

 

Removal of honeybees

As indicated earlier, the presence of honeybees while they are in a reproductive swarm is relatively easy. It will take only a few minutes to effect their removal. A swarm is very easy to capture, but you should NOT attempt to do it yourself. Also, do NOT attempt to drive it away from your property.

Remember that a swarm is looking for a nesting site so it may not be around for long. Time is of the essence, so you'll need to call in a beekeeper or a pest control company quickly. A beekeeper is usually willing to add a captured swarm to his/her apiary.

If the colony has established its nest, removal is much more difficult and problematic. Some of the reasons for this are:

The picture at right illustrates the challenges of a honeybee nest removal.

You get the picture!..It is NOT a good idea to take on a project like this yourself. Many beekeepers will not want to do it because of the damage they will likely make to your propety.

If you decide to have the honeybee nest removed, your best solution is usually the engagement of a pest control company. A good pest control company knows what they are doing and they know what to expect. If pesticides need to be used in the process, they are licensed to apply them.

Usually, the pest control company will be willing to open up the structure in order to remove all elements of the honeybee nest. They will not repair any structural damage. You will have to make other arrangements for repair after the nest has been removed.

You may be tempted to simply kill the bees with pesticide and leave the nest in place in order to avoid the cost and trouble of having repairs made. You should think very carefully about that! The nest will have residual odors that may attract another colony of bees. Also, it may produce a secondary infestation of wax moths, ants or other pests.

Many pest control companies will insist that you sign a waiver of liability if you do not allow them to remove the honeybee nest.

 

Elements of risk

As we indicate in this guide, some of the risk can be mitigated by action on your part. Your exposure is increased if you do not take preventive measures such as those mentioned in this guide.

Property damage, personal injury can happen even with strident measures on your part.

It is your decision to live with or remove the honeybees on your property.

Because of the widespread publicity about Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) in the United States, many people are tempted to "save the bees" that appear on their property. As of the time of this writing, CCD has not yet been known to affect honeybees in New Mexico.

It is our recommendation that you make your decision carefully and "err on the side of safety" if you are tempted to "save the bees" or live with them on your property.

 

Closing Comments

Honeybees have established patterns of behavior. Their defensive behavior is stimulated or provoked. Honeybees do what is natural to them.

Your best protection against honeybee stings is to be vigilant to their presence and to control the stimuli that will cause stinging episodes.

Become acquainted with the content of this guide. Act upon the recommended preventive measures in order to minimize your risk and to prevent personal injury.

 

Prepared: April 12, 2009