DOWNTOWN: Dealing With The Changing Temperament Of Our Bees

by Toni Burnham

As this beekeeping season comes to a close around here, one recurring theme among our newbees and mentees has been unwelcome changes in hive temperament. Not far behind has been deciding when a hive is too hot for either the beek or the neighbors – then figuring out what to do about it. One of the great lessons of 2014 is really a very old lesson: if you don’t know that you have a gentle, local queen, swap her out for one with an established pedigree. I might go so far as to say that urban beeks might want to pay just about as much attention to this lesson as our colleagues in Africanized Honey Bee zones.

So, who likes temperamental bees, anyway, and why is this a particularly urban topic? The usual worries apply: legalized beekeeping might take a hit from a stinging incident, our apiaries are surrounded by a lot more people who could get stung, and it’s harder to take proper care of cranky bees. But survey after survey also indicates that city beekeepers tend to be newer to the craft, more likely to be self-educated, and less likely to be the sole user of the areas where their apiaries are located (meaning we use areas in community gardens, school and church grounds, parks, and so on).

When “urban savvy” is not so smart

Why do “newer” and “self-educated” matter? We all know that so many of our decisions about our bees depend on a solid gut sense of what is going on, what is healthy, and what is normal for the place where we are standing. In the case of a hot hive, a new beekeeper could legitimately believe that the problem was in how they might be fumbling with tools, smoker, and woodenware, and blame themselves. Most urban beekeepers also join up with the idea that they are participating in “saving the honey bee,” not squashing ornery queens. They often will not go there on their own. My mentees ask me for permission: a lot.

Hot Hives in the City

If your average beekeeper has two years or less under her or his belt, the gut located there still has a lot to learn. And we clever urbanites like our books, webinars, and online videos because they are easy to fit around busy crowded lives: not like a class that takes up tired hours after work, or to which you have to sacrifice a chunk of several weekends. But it’s easy to miss key topics when writing your own syllabus, and many urbanites have simply never had any experience with practical agri- or apiculture.

Wouldn’t it help to know what to expect of bee behavior and temperament based on the seasons at your latitude? But it’s also hard to find an experienced mentor, especially in these super-growth years of interest.

Nowadays, city beekeepers that have been around awhile are often already fielding questions from a half dozen newbees. Rather than wait around for someone to be available to visit your apiary, for a class seat to be offered, or for the weather to allow a group meet up, its faster and easier for a city newcomer to Google “beekeeping in a nutshell” and believe the first source that seems to make sense. It is not great preparation for the unexpected, which biology and the bees are never short on delivering.

Beggars can’t be choosers

Another unforeseen effect of the recent growth of urban beekeeping, the relative inexperience of practitioners, and the price of space around here is that we have relatively few nuc and queen producers dedicated specifically to our city club. All around here, in suburbs and more rural areas, good hearted and smart beekeeping communities have been working hard to make up overwintered nucs and local queens for their students, and they sell the extras to us when they can. But we are not yet in a place to supply the 40 or 50 new beekeepers that graduate with every short course with known local stock. So we get bees where we can: usually packages, usually from hundreds of miles South, and we count ourselves lucky that we have the option. In the absence of nucs, many of us make as many splits as we can in the Spring for our mentees, but a lot of these queens are free mated. Catch-22.

Shared spaces and getting serious about genes

This is not a public confession that I make lightly: about once a year, I help destroy a hive: usually a great, big, healthy one. The common factor every year: bees in small and shared spaces where non-beekeepers are getting hurt. This year it was in a place frequented every day by small children and every evening by passing foot commuters. My group got involved after the police did. I picked up between 100 and 200 stings putting out that fire. It made me think.

There is no villain in this story (or, frankly, any of the others: careless people don’t call for help). In most of the recent cases, the queen in question came from a package that was lovingly cared for, except for the requeening-with-someone-local part. The beekeeper that ended up in trouble found the package queen to be productive, gentle and easy to work in 2013, so why change? But she found herself with a fire breather after the 2014 nectar flow. What happened? Well, no one told her a few things.

Here in DC, our packages mostly come from the South, from areas bordered by zones known to harbor Africanized bees. Most package queens come from mating programs complete with drone flooding (or so the assurances go), but in the best of such efforts, who knows which drone found which queen along the way? And bees don’t have to be AHB to be jerks, anyway.

What we think happened is an efficient supercedure that resulted in a hot second cross. There was no obvious drop in hive strength or brood rearing to signal queen loss, but after the honey was stored away, the fireworks started.

What do I mean by a second cross? In Mendelian genetics, you can have a parent who breeds true to a desirable characteristic mate with another sporting a not-so-nice quality. The first generation of offspring can still turn out to be just peachy. But if you let that generation free mate–no one that I know of is drone flooding downtown–a significant percentage of their young can revert to hell-on-wings. The second cross is, in fact, cross. And the package bee producer has no way to tell me whether it will happen, or how often, or which queen.

Our new policy for recommending bees in community gardens, parks, school yards, and anywhere the public can pass within 20 feet of a hive entrance is really knowing the pedigree of the bee lines placed there. We love swarms, we depend on packages, but we want to know everyone’s grandma before we put them on public space. And if we don’t know at first, we want to know by the time the season is over. By any means necessary.

Some basics of thinking about bee temperament

There are some pretty standard management techniques, seasonal changes, and genetic train wrecks that I consider when figuring whether a hive, or really its mama, is too hot for downtown. I consider these the three tent poles of deciding whether the local royalty has to go. But there is truly one variable you don’t need an expert mentor to decide for yourself: is working your bees painful for you? Don’t put up with it.

There’s a lot of stuff out there right now about working without protective gear, and without smoke. Hey, it’s any adult’s choice, but I get stung a lot more that way. And the bees are more riled when that happens, what with all the alarm pheromone around the place. If you are in the city, getting stung, and generally getting the girls worked up, please consider trying a veil and a smoker. The next person passing by did not volunteer for the privilege, and the bees will be testy after you leave. But this alone does not mean that they are hot.

And some bees are hotter at some times than others, so you can work with that, within reason. The bees of early Spring around here are a marvel of peace and contentment, right through our nectar flow of April-May-June. After that, you have a full sized colony of underemployed bees, and they are less pleasant company. All this means is that you work them less, and with more awareness of the state of affairs.

I would not recommend requeening every hive that reacted more defensively after a flow, especially when the queen is already from known stock. If putting the empty supers on after harvest is a threat to life and limb, however, I would consider it.

And I would consider it strongly. If you do not know the queen’s background, and you do have access to a known quantity, this is your last chance to requeen before colony populations get north of 40 or 50K.

We have a predictable annual dearth in late Summer, when we try to mostly leave colonies that are in good shape alone, if only to prevent robbing. Even I put on the gloves in late Summer around here.

If they continue to get hotter as they grow into our dearth season, and that hive is in a public place, we face the thrilling prospect of attempting to dissect a vigorous volcano of a hive in the middle of all humanity. My so-wise mentor once told me that finding the queen in a normal August hive around here was not about skill, but luck. Luck is not good enough in a major American population center.

Fall requeening is what’s generally recommended around here (though there are energetic philosophical wars around the subject), and if I did not remove an unknown queen before now, this is when to go for it. Try to get a friend or four to help: once while making splits, Jennifer Berry showed us how to have multiple beekeepers simultaneously each grab and inspect a single box for the queen before the latter got a chance to run. In late Summer, I also use a hive drape to minimize the number of bees in the air. This is a tremendous way to cut down on time required and pheromone released, while maximizing your chances of success. (If I have described this poorly, it’s my fault, not Jennifer’s, and you probably should be reading her article anyway.)

We can manage the heat

Like you read earlier, there is nothing particularly urban about having a hot, unmanageable hive, but we face elevated risk of getting our approach and our genes wrong, and harming other people when we do. So we need to be thinking about whom we have inside those boxes, what we know about her, and how we are going to manage her succession plan. This reminds me a lot of the kind of awareness that is common practice in AHB areas, and we could consider taking a page or two from their published recommended practices.

But my main (and somewhat unhappy) advice is to be ready to let go, even of a high-producing, well-behaving queen if you don’t know what you have and don’t know what you will do if the situation goes bad. The worst case does not happen that often, but it really sucks to kill 50,000 bees (and the stings are no fun, either). The best case is that you are building up the healthy temperament and genetics of your entire urban area each time you introduce known, high quality stock into such a concentrated space. Over time, we will produce more of our own, but until then, we have to be suspicious and a little bit mean ourselves.

One way to deal with a large, hot colony in a very great hurry is to use a very large black plastic garbage bag. Remove the telescoping cover but leave on the inner cover, with the bag at the ready. Slip the bag all the way over and down to and cover the entrance. Tip the colony on its side and put another bag from the bottom up. The heat from the sun and no moving air will suffocate the bees in a matter of minutes, with no free flying bees to be a danger.
Toni Burnham
Toni Burnham keeps bees on rooftops in the Washington, DC area where she lives.