When Good Bees Go Bad

| 8/4/2015 9:22:00 AM


If you attend a beekeeping conference, class, or workshop, you may hear beekeepers referring to a “hot hive”.  What, exactly, is a “hot hive”?   In beekeeping talk, a hot hive is one where the bees have become aggressive, unfriendly, and just plain mean.  In our experience, it can usually be traced back to some sort of issue with the queen. The hive might be queenless, or have a failing queen, or it could just be the genetics of the queen.  The queen sets the mood of the entire hive, and if she isn’t happy, nobody is happy!  For example – one spring my husband and I were inspecting a hive that the previous fall had been gentle and productive.  When we opened them up, however, about 50 bees flew straight up from the hive and started bouncing off of our veils, attempting to sting us.  We could distinctly smell the honey bee alarm pheromone (which smells like overripe bananas). 

Now, I am used to bees who are gentle, and who pretty much ignore me when I am working the hives.  I want to be able to relax and enjoy my bees when I am in the beeyard.  Dealing with aggressive bees who seem intent on driving me away from the hive is not my idea of fun. So, what to do?

First, try to find out if something could be disturbing an otherwise calm hive.  Was the weather not good that day?  Strong winds, approaching storms, or other changes in the weather can cause a hive to become grouchier than they normally would be.  Being harassed by animals can also cause a hive to be more aggressive than usual. Check around the hive – are there scratch marks at the entrance?  This could mean that skunks or other marauders have been harassing the hive.  Observe the hive during the day- are they under attack by hornets, yellow jackets, or other insects?  Finally, could you have accidentally squished any bees when opening the hive?  If a number of bees are killed or injured, it could trigger a defensive response in the hive.

In our case, we could not find any sign that the hive was being harassed in any way.  The weather was fine, and we could find no external cause for the hives behavior.  We decided to wait a week, and open up the hive again, to see if there was any change.  When we again opened up the hive, we were greeted with the same response. The ripe banana alarm smell, and bees aggressively circling, bouncing off of our veils, and attempting to sting us. We closed up the hive, and decided to think about what to do next.

At this point, we decided that the issue was probably with the queen.  One option would have been to simply replace the queen.  You can do this by ordering a queen, and a few days before she is due to arrive, go into the hive and destroy the old queen. After a few days without a queen, the hive should be ready to accept a new queen.   However, since this was a very large hive, and we wanted to expand the size of our apiary, we decided to split up the hive to make several new hives.  We got set up to begin three new hives – hive stands, bottom boards, hive bodies, inner and outer covers.  After getting all of our protective gear on (we even wore gloves for this one), we smoked the grouchy hive, and opened them up.

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