Keeping Bees Calm

As soon as someone finds out I keep bees, one of the first questions they ask is “Don’t you get stung?” Of course I do! And carpenters smash their thumbs with hammers occasionally-it’s just part of the job. Stings aren’t inevitable though. Keeping bees calm during hive inspections helps minimize stings to the beekeeper and disruption to the bees. Proper inspections are performed at the right time, with the right gear, and with the right attitude.

When to inspect? The best time of day for hive inspections or manipulations is between 10am and 2pm on a warm, sunny day. More of the bees will be out foraging midday than any other time. Wind, rain, clouds, or incoming storms can make the bees irritable before you even enter the hive. Bees also tend to be calmer when a strong nectar flow is on. A busy bee is a happy bee. The temperature is important, because bees start to cluster when the temperature is in the 50’s. A day that is 70 degrees or warmer is good for inspections, as cooler temps can damage brood.

What gear do you need? A smoker! Smoke is used to calm the bees, mask the alarm pheromone, and confuse attacking guard bees. Your smoker should be fueled and lit before you crack open the first hive. Give a few gentle puffs at the entrance and wait a couple of minutes before starting your inspection. More smoke is not necessarily better. It only takes a little to disrupt the bees’ defensive behavior. Use as much as you need, but no more. If you happen to get stung, use the smoke to mask the alarm pheromone and prevent further attack. Keep the smoker lit and always have more fuel on hand. If the smoker happens to go out, cover the hive back up, relight the smoker, then resume the hive inspection. The only other tool you will absolutely need is a hive tool. You will need this to remove lids, separate boxes, and loosen frames so you can pull them out for inspection. Bee brushes, frame pullers, and frame rests are all optional accessories.

For your personal protection gear, at the very least get a good quality veil and wear it whenever you approach the hives. A sting to the eyelid or a bee in your ear canal can ruin the rest of your week in a second. I prefer a full bee suit with the attached veil. If you don’t own a bee suit or jacket you can wear a long sleeve shirt and pants. Wear light colors and secure the cuffs of your shirt and pants with tape or ponytail bands. This will prevent bees from crawling up your arms and legs. I once made the mistake of taking a quick peek at a hive while wearing a black knit sweater. I think half that hive chased me back to the house! Perhaps because predators are darker colored, bees are more inclined to be aggressive to large, dark shapes.

Gloves are optional, and many beekeepers don’t use them at all. Your movements without gloves will be smoother, and it is easier to grip frames with bare fingers. If you do choose to go gloveless, you should have a pair of suitable gloves close by. Light colored leather gloves are adequate for preventing stings. If the hive becomes angry for some reason you will still need to put the hive back together before leaving. Gloves will make closing up an aggressive hive much less painful. Nine times out of ten I wear a pair of nitrile gloves for inspections, mostly to keep my hands from getting sticky. If I do encounter a hive that looks diseased, I can easily switch to a new hive tool and a fresh pair of gloves to avoid spreading disease around the yard.

Bring the right attitude to your bees. I truly believe that your manner and mood rub off on the bees. If you are hurried or nervous, that feeling seems to translate to the hive. Move slowly, smoke as needed, and don’t jar the bees. Bees may fly up and around you to check you out. Don’t swat! If they start to bump into you, then you know they are starting to get more worked up. Stay calm and give them a little more smoke. Keep your fingers together as you handle frames to avoid inadvertently squishing a bee between your fingers. Dropping a frame full of bees is always a bad idea, so be sure you have a good, firm grip before lifting it out of the hive.

You’ve picked a sunny, calm day. You are geared up appropriately, with a lit smoker and your preferred protective gear. You are calm and ready to go, so everything should go smoothly, right? Unfortunately that’s not always the case. Bees are still wild animals and therefore can be unpredictable. Here are a few things that can go wrong and how to handle the situation.

  • You get stung. Scrape off the stinger as soon as possible and smoke the area to mask the alarm pheromone.
  • You open a hive and are faced with angry bees and the smell of banana laffy taffy. This hive is already putting out large amounts of alarm pheromone. Cover yourself with appropriate gear before going into this hive.
  • The bees chase you. Smoke yourself, leave the area, try walking through low branches or brush, walking around a building may confuse their attack. Get indoors if necessary.
  • A bee finds its way into your veil or clothing. Trap the bee in a fold of screen of cloth and pinch it. Don’t smack it against yourself or you’ll earn a sting. Find the hole in your gear and seal it back up.
  • You have a hive that is consistently defensive and difficult to work with. If there are no signs of disease or pests, then an aggressive hive may need to be requeened. Within 6 weeks of requeening the worker bees will have the genetics of the new queen and hopefully be calmer.

Working your bees should be a calming and mostly sting free experience. If you encounter problems with aggression, take a minute to ensure you are inspecting at the right time, with the right gear, and with the right attitude. If you are still encountering problems, requeen or seek out a local mentor for more hands on guidance. Happy Beekeeping!