When Good Bees Turn Bad

“Honey bees don’t want to sting you.”  I tell school children this all the time when I conduct outreach events on behalf of our local beekeeping association.  What I don’t tell the children is that my statement is only partially true.  Honey bees do want to sting you in the months of July and August.  During this period, our naturally docile bees turn into hell on wings.    

How bad do the bees get this time of year?  Doug tried to do a hive inspection in early August.  The bees chased him to the truck before he could open a single hive.  One of the landowners where we keep bees complained that bees started chasing her when she mowed her lawn.  One beekeeping friend was unable to outrun his bees, and they clustered on the seat of his pants looking for an entry point to sting him.  Fortunately he is an experienced beekeeper who performs hive inspections while wearing jeans and not shorts.    

Honey bees all over the world don’t get this grumpy in July and August, just the bees in our part of the country.  Our region experiences a period in mid-summer called “the dearth” when few plants are in bloom. The bees gorge themselves in spring and early summer when nearly everything is in bloom. The bees are so busy packing away honey that they don’t notice or don’t care when you start opening the hive and performing an inspection.  In early fall, the wild asters and goldenrods start to bloom, and the bees once again have plentiful sources of pollen and nectar.  During this in between period our good bees turn bad because Mother Nature turns off the pollen and nectar spigots without even having the courtesy of announcing last call.  The bees are forced to feed off of the honey that they have stored in their hives assuming the local beekeeper didn’t get greedy and harvest too much honey during the spring honey flow. 

The bees want to protect their honey and can become very aggressive in defense of their hive during the dearth.  Every motion around the hive gets perceived by the bees as a threat that needs to be neutralized.  During this period, bees will gladly rob honey from other hives.  That’s right, the honey bees become little thugs.  If a colony is weak and doesn’t have enough bees to defend itself, robber bees from other colonies will enter the hive and steal honey.  (Maybe I should write a satire of Lord of the Flies and call it Lord of the Bees.)  Many beekeepers will feed their bees sugar syrup during this time to keep colonies from becoming weak. In extreme cases, a weak colony may starve during the dearth. This happened to one of hives in a previous year.  Doug and I are not feeding our bees this year.  We haven’t harvested honey yet, and we are letting the bees eat their spring honey.  We like to take a holistic approach to beekeeping and let the bees do their own thing with minimal human intervention.  We harvest less honey, but we also don’t have to provide supplemental feed.  I hated it when we fed our bees because gallons of syrup had to be made in my kitchen and my floors and counters were always sticky.    

Climate change is also impacting our bees.  The rain is not evenly distributed anymore across the months.  We typically experience a three to four week stretch of hot weather with little or no rain sometime during the summer.  Honey bees need lots of water.  During this dry period, beekeepers need to make sure their bees have access to water if they are not providing supplemental syrup.  We are fortunate that our hives are near streams.  Many suburban beekeepers experience the wrath of their neighbors when the bees begin to congregate at the neighbors’ swimming pools.

I have a patch of wildflowers by my front door, and I keep watching the flower heads of the goldenrod.  Very soon the flowers will bloom and the dearth will come to an end. Our bees should go back to their happy go-lucky selves.  If they don’t, I’m going to get Doug a Kevlar beekeeping suit for Christmas. 


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