Why do bees attack?

Can you make money as a beekeeper?
May 28, 2020
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A phobia is defined as an intense irrational fear of something. Melissophobia would then be defined as the irrational fear of bees (even though it sounds like an intense fear of girls called Melissa).

But is it really irrational to fear something that could kill you? I thought about this when I first started beekeeping. African bees care not for political correctness. The are loyal only to each other and flowers. So when I was still trying to learn the art of beekeeping, I got stung. Badly. After one particularly bad visit, I even got diarrhea. Very unpleasant, but it was short lived and I survived.

My apiary is on farmland. There is a family that lives on the land and I have neighbours. Both have a variety of farm animals. In the 6 years I have been a beekeeper, not a single animal has been lost to bee attacks. There have been a few stinging incidences but nothing severe. Despite my unpleasant visit, it is clear that the bees aren’t just spoiling for a fight. So what sets them off?

Ignoring the warning

bees sting to protect the nest
Bees are unlikely to sting while they are feeding
outside the hive

When a bee stings you, it dies. Therefore, stinging is a last resort. The only thing to be gained by stinging you is to keep the nest safe. That’s why you are unlikely to be stung by a bee while it is collecting nectar.

When you get too close to a hive, the bees will warn you. They’ll fly around you and even give you a head butt. Unfortunately, people respond by trying to swat the bee. Big mistake. Your flailing arms and rapid movements just confirm to them that you are indeed a threat. That’s when things escalate, very quickly.

The appropriate response when you hear buzzing is to get away. Don’t try to look for the nest. Leave that to someone who is wearing protective gear. When you hear that loud hum, and one or two bees come at you, just run away. You’ll ask questions later.

Very often that’s how an attack begins. It’s like a bar brawl. It starts with just two people but very soon innocent bystanders are dodging flying bottles. Once the bees are aggravated, they will take out their aggression on everyone and everything in sight.

Bad weather

Hot weather affects us in two ways. We either slow down or get cranky.

Bees slow down when it’s cold. When it’s hot they are more active, and irritable. Ordinarily, they can keep their temper in check. But sometimes nature deals a bad hand, and the bees project their anger at her toward anyone nearby.

When a swarm splits, the senior queen takes some workers with her and sets up camp nearby as her scouts find a new digs. Ordinarily a swarm in transit isn’t aggressive, but in very hot weather, it takes little to aggravate it. A loud generator causing uncomfortable vibrations nearby could set them off.

Mischief

How many times have you seen little boys throwing rocks at various creatures just to get a reaction?

Sometimes, curious adults will come across a hive and decide to “investigate.” Bees don’t like investigators. The detectives they are used to are badgers and other disruptive animals. Anyone throwing stones or using sticks to knock on the hive is perceived as a threat.

Once the bees get really upset, they spread the hurt around. When you read about bee attacks in Kenya, the exact origin of the attack remains unknown because the affected area can be quite vast.

Lack of food

Hungry bees can be aggressive
Hungry bees can be aggressive

Nectar is a seasonal necessity. During dry months, it is rare for flowers to be in bloom. And as the old adage goes, a hungry bee is an angry bee.

Sometimes beekeepers harvest more honey than they should. That leaves the bees with too little in form of reserves to get them through the dearth.

During this nectar-less period, bees will rob each other. As you can imagine, they are on high alert to protect whatever little they have. An innocent visit at a time like that would provoke a seriously nasty reaction from them.

Natural predators

Predators scratching the hive makes bees irritable

Imagine bracing yourself for hours on end as you hear intruders try to break in to your house. In the morning, the word good would be met by either stunned silence or karate chop to the throat.

Bees feel the same way. If there’s an animal harassing them frequently, perhaps scratching the exterior of the hive or pushing it, they are bound to be very testy. You could be walking by the next day, minding your own business and your proximity to the hive will be seen as an act of aggression. They will respond like they are going to war.

But again, they will give you some warning shots. If you are slow to decipher those signs, things will get ugly.

Loud sounds and vibrations

Bees are very sensitive to vibration. Look at the waggle dance for instance. It is done in the dark. So the bees feel the worker bees movements better than they actually see it.

Every time she does her little dance, she vibrates like a phone. Now, if they can decipher that in the dark, imagine how easy it is for them to be overwhelmed by a P.A system, or a loud motorbike. It’s basically an assault to the senses.

This is why it is prudent to avoid keeping bees in the middle of an urban area. You could enjoy a peaceful existence with the bees until one day, a concrete mixer is brought on site and all hell breaks loose.

Carrying out inspections at the wrong time

Traditionally, people harvest honey at night. Why? For one thing, bees are diurnal, meaning they are active during the day. At night, they rest so we take that advantage.

They are also calmer in cool weather. That’s why you will rarely see beekeepers visiting their bees at noon. It is advisable to carry out inspections when it’s cool, say in the morning before 9 a.m, or in the evening from around 4 p.m. Paying them a visit at the hottest time of the day could trigger aggression. Everyone not wearing a bee suit within a 500m radius could be in danger.

Final thoughts

Bee attacks are not common. If they were, I think the death toll would be astronomical. There is always a trigger. Infact, it’s usually a combination of triggers that sets them off.

When you understand bee behavior, perhaps an intense fear of bees is irrational.

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