When Good Bees Go Bad

Reader Contribution by Jennifer Ford
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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.

We went through the hive, frame by frame, dividing the frames up among the three new and one original hives.    We made sure that each hive had eggs, larvae, capped brood, honey, pollen, and empty cells to expand into.   When we found the queen on one of the frames, we dispatched her with a hive tool.  I might have felt bad about doing that, except that the bees were being there usual grouchy selves from the moment we opened them – bombarding us, stinging, and bouncing off of our veils.  Once we had the frames evenly divided among the four hives, we closed them up, and added entrance reducers.  As expected, many of the field bees returned to the original hive.  However, because we were sure to include open brood in each hive, the nurse bees stayed in each hive they were placed in.  After a few days, we picked up four mated queens from a local beekeeper.  We introduced the new queens to the four hives in a queen cage with a candy plug in one end.  Hopefully, by the time the worker bees chewed through the candy, they would be ready to accept a new queen. 

When three days had passed, we did a quick check to make sure all of the queens had been released – and they had.  After another week we checked to make sure the queen was alive and laying eggs.  In each hive we were able to find the queen, and also found many eggs in the previously empty cells.  After a few weeks, we noticed an extreme difference in the temperament of all four hives.  They bees were gentle, docile, and easy to work with.  All four hives ended up doing very well, and made it through the following winter.

“Hot” hives are definitely not a fun part of beekeeping.  However, there is usually a solution to the problem.   It could even lead to an improvement in the apiary – such as being able to expand the number of hives.

Happy Beekeeping!

Jennifer Ford owns and operates Bees of the Woods Apiary with her husband Keith Freeman.  You can visit them at Bees of the Woods.

Photo by Keith Freeman

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