For those of you who have at one time been stung by a Honeybee – and that most likely includes the vast majority of us – you probably did not think too kindly of the bee at that moment. IT HURTS!! And, for a small percentage of people that single bee sting could even be life-threatening, as some immune systems are set off pretty violently by bee venom, and could so over-react that the victim could go into shock. Fortunately, that is uncommon, and hopefully those who are at risk are aware of that personal reaction, and are taking steps to avoid the problem.
However, generally speaking, the domesticated Honeybee – Apis mellifera – is one of the most vital and beneficial insects we have in North America, for without it we would have a very difficult time growing the quantities and varieties of foods that we do. Honeybees are the consummate pollinators, and when raised in domestic hives they cooperate with us in this effort. Along with the production of our food crops we also get the side benefit of a ready supply of honey, and I think the bees are okay with this thievery of ours, because in exchange for the honey we take from them they are provided with the safety of a healthy hive, and access to a ready supply of food for themselves.
So, we have to be careful of just a few things about Honeybees, and the sting is only one. From personal experience I’d suggest you even be careful of “dead” bees you might find lying on the ground. I once found what to this day I’d swear was a dead honeybee, and being the curious naturalist that I am I handed it to my 4 year old daughter to hold and observe. Again, I swear I thought it was dead – it even had those little “X’s” in the eyes you always see in cartoons. Anyhow, a minute later it stung my daughter on the hand. Apparently the bee was only recently “dead”, and there still was sufficient muscle reflex left in the bee to perform one last sting. Now, strangely, she doesn’t trust me anymore.
A second problem with Honeybees is the recent arrival of the so-called “Killer Bees” in North America, at the time of this writing present throughout many of the warm southern United States, and into southern California. The more proper name for this problem is the Africanized Honey Bee, for it is exactly the same species of honeybee we’ve always seen, but one that evolved for millions of years in Africa, where it developed a much nastier attitude than our friendly domestic bee. In a separate BugInfo article I will talk about the Killer Bee, but not in this one.
A third problem with the Honeybee occurs when they decide that the walls of your house will make a dandy place to set up their home, and once moved in will expand the colony and live there for just about as long as you let them. Let’s take a look at this phenomenon, and see how it happens and what you need to do about it.
In the Beginning
The Honeybee colony is an incredibly fascinating and intricate society, and Honeybees are examples of bees that we call “social” insects. Within the colony there is a Queen who lays all the eggs, workers who care for the eggs and larvae, and who also do all the work of making and maintaining the nest, finding food, and defending the colony from enemies. There also will be Drones, or the male Honeybees, but they are chased out of the colony and exist only for the purpose of mating with new Queens.
The Honeybee colony will contain only a single Queen, but in order to ensure new colonies can begin and the populations can grow, new Queen bees are produced each year. All the Queens except one will leave their parent colony, to fly off and establish their own colonies somewhere else. As they leave they take a large “entourage” of worker bees with them, and you may have seen this exciting dispersal flight as what is called a “swarm”, often in the warm days of early spring. This can be a pretty frightening thing to be in the middle of, as hundreds or thousands of bees suddenly are flying around and past you as you are walking down the street.
However, at this time there is very, very little chance of getting stung, for the workers at this time are not defending anything in particular, and have no instinct to attack you, unless one gets trapped in your clothes and feels personally threatened. The swarms stop each day to rest, usually as a huge ball of bees with the Queen somewhere in the midst of all the workers, and from this blob workers will venture off in different directions looking for an appropriate cavity to offer their Queen as a potential new home. There are interesting incidents where the swarm chose someone’s car as the resting site, or even, possibly a person who stood still too long.
I’ve got a swarm in my tree!!! What do I do?
The best course of action, should you one day discover a football-sized clump of bees in a tree in your front yard, or perhaps on the fence, is…..nothing. Actually, I’d suggest you wander out and just appreciate this marvelous sight, for in a day or so the bees will leave again. The tree limb and fence are not good nest sites, so all they are doing is hanging out while the workers look for a better place.
If this is of great concern to you, however, and you have the right not to have the bees in your yard, you could call a local beekeeper, and ask them to come and remove the bees. Quite often professional beekeepers are happy to add more bees to their commercial hives, but they also may have concerns and refuse your offer. Wild colonies of Honeybees potentially can be infected with mites or diseases that can kill them, and if they are brought into the clean colonies the beekeeper already has these problems can be spread. However, give the beekeeper a call, and if they want the bees they simply come out to your house with a container, and scoop the bees right into it.
Your third alternative is to have the bees killed, but it’s always best to try one of the first two alternatives and allow the bees to survive. If removing the bees by having them done in is the best choice for you, then call a licensed professional pest control company. They will have the special clothing and equipment needed to do this work without getting stung.
The Bees are coming out of the walls of the house – now what?
It is very common for the worker bees to stumble upon an opening that leads into your home, possibly a crack between layers of the siding, around window framing, openings that give access to phone cables or electric wires, cable TV lines, etc. Any small opening that leads into the wall voids can be a potential doorway for the bees, and you may not even be aware that they’ve all moved in until much later, when the hive is already well-established. If you have a bee colony living within your home you absolutely should have it removed, and once again the options are to kill them or try to remove them alive.
Why not just let the bees use my house?
Aside from the much higher potential for getting stung by having this close an association with the bees, there are other reasons why you need to remove them.
- The nest and the honey are attractive to ants
- The nest is attractive to moths that feed on the honeycomb
- The nest is attractive to carpet beetles that feed on leftover materials
- On very hot days the honey and the wax become a problem
They should be removed, but here is a very important point – regardless of how the bees are removed, either alive or dead, you MUST have the entire hive removed as well. Discuss this with the company you call for service. While the bees are alive and working the colony they keep most other insects away, and they also keep the wax honeycomb in place. Once the bees are no longer there the wax will melt on hot days, releasing the stored honey to flow into the wall voids and probably through the walls and into your home. The worker bees are able to create a breeze by “fanning”, when the temperatures get too hot, and they create a kind of air conditioning to keep the wax cool enough to stay solid.
In addition, once the bees are gone, the ants around your home will think they’ve died and gone to Heaven when they discover the treasure of honey inside the walls, along with all the dead bee larvae, and you will have parades of ants working the walls for quite awhile. The dead bee larvae and pupae also will begin to rot and smell, and they become attractive to Mother Nature’s little cleanup crew, which includes Carpet Beetles. There’s no sense in allowing these guys to get any closer to your wool sweaters than absolutely necessary either.
A typical Honeybee hive can have over 100 pounds of honey stored in the wax honeycomb after just its first year in that location! It’s attractive to ants, cockroaches, yellow jackets, and other honeybees. It must come out, and unless you are into wall construction and repair you might want to contact a professional.
How is bee removal accomplished?
Taking the Honeybees out alive is the preferred method, for it salvages these beneficial insects to allow them to continue their important work. One method used by professionals is referred to as “funneling”, in which a one-way funnel is placed over the entrance hole the bees are using to get into the wall. The bees that exit are enticed to move into another small colony placed close to that funnel, and the workers that exit and cannot re-enter their home in the wall will accept a new place.
This, of course, does not eliminate the Queen, who remains inside and continues to lay eggs as long as there is honey to feed the developing larvae. Funneling is best done in the early spring, when the bees have used up much of their stored honey by feeding on it over the long winter. After the workers have been removed by funneling it still may take many weeks for the honey reserves to be used by the larvae, but at least no new honey is being created inside. At this point the wax honeycomb still should be physically removed and the wall closed and resealed, for the odor of the old hive and honey still can draw other honeybees to that point.
If funneling is unsuccessful – or simply not the option – then the professional will open the walls and go after the bees directly, usually by vacuuming them gently into another hive. All of the honeycomb will be cut out and removed, and in the process getting stung by the unhappy bees is a strong likelihood. This is why it is best not to tackle this job yourself. During the removal it is important that the Queen bee be removed, for she is the reason all the workers are there, and without her there will be no more egg-laying and any last few workers will leave.
What if I just have someone kill the bees?
Again, even if you or someone you hire pumps insecticide into the wall and successfully kills every last bee in there, you have the secondary problem of dead larvae and attractive honey still inside. This must be removed, and physically opening the wall is really about the only option.
By the way, if the bees are killed by poisoning, DO NOT eat the honey that remains.
So, there we are. Even the “beneficial” insects can be severe problems when they decide to co-exist with people, and that is when we can properly label them as “pests”. Honeybees are wonderful, and we raise them in hives to take advantage of their hard work, but be aware of the potential of problems and the course of action when it happens to your home.