How to Avoid Bee Stings – Part Three

by Julie Tennis on November 18, 2011

This week I’m posting a short series about how to avoid being stung by bees. There are three main lines of defense against bee stings when you’re a beekeeper: your suit, your smoker, and bee sense.  This is part three:

Bee Sense

Your number one defense against getting stung is to cultivate your “bee sense,” or your ability to pay attention to your bees. I’ve gained a lot of understanding of bees as a result of careful observation and a few mistakes.

Before I begin, I should note that different types of bees have different methods of communication.  In this article I am only referring to what I’ve learned about honey bees.

Honey bees communicate to each other in two observable ways:  by movement and by smell.  When describing to other bees in the hive how to find a productive flower patch, the scout bee will perform an intricate “dance” comprised of walking in particular patterns and shaking her body.  This is often referred to as the “waggle dance.”  This is pretty straightforward and scientists have deciphered many of the moves in the waggle dance.

The other method honey bees use to communicate to each other is with pheromones.  These are chemical aromas that are released by every member of the hive, from the queen to the larvae.  The queen uses particular aromas to keep the hive operating smoothly.  Larvae release pheromones to indicate hunger.  Worker bees use different odors to help orient others to the hive and to indicate alarm.

I imagine if our sense of smell was as refined as that of the bees, we might be able to understand them before things move to the next level.  But being the humans that we are, honey bees generally have to utilize a more basic form of communication with us – threatening body language and sounds.

At some point in your beekeeping career, you’ll undoubtedly encounter the “buzz off” or the “strafing buzz.”  This is happens when a honey bee has determined you are too close to her hive and she’s giving you an opportunity to back off.  She will either fly back and forth in front of your face like someone wagging their finger at you, or she’ll fly by – quick and close.  In either case, she will be creating a buzzing sound much louder than the gentle hum of bees at work.

In this video, I was recording the activity in front of hive ten.  I was standing to the side, which is usually a safe place to observe the bees when they are active like this.  I had been in this location for several minutes however, and I drew the attention of one of the guards.  You can hear her warning buzz as she chases me away:

Sometimes a bee might choose to “head butt” your face instead of giving you an auditory signal.  Or she’ll graduate to the head butt if you haven’t backed off enough.  The head butt could be comparable to a shove – the bee is using her body to indicate where she wants you to go.  Pay attention and you may avoid being stung!

Although I have seen these two forms of communication frequently and gotten away sting free, I have also seen people get stung after being warned away.  It is always best to use every line of defense when you are working with the bees.  Don’t count on just your suit or just your smoker, or just your ability to “communicate with the bees” – always approach your hives fully prepared and outfitted.  This way the experience of beekeeping is more enjoyable for you and less stressful for your bees.

To learn how to get started beekeeping, sign up on the form at the top right side of this page.  I will be offering live workshops and the eBook “Everything You Need to Know to Start Beekeeping This Spring” very soon.




Nil July 3, 2012 at 4:33 pm

This video shows his new way of feeding with an all sceren top, so the bees can’t get out when the jars are changed. A flat lid is important to have contact with the sceren. A mason jar lid has an indent, preventing good contact with the sceren. With a full sceren you can also look at the bees. Mr. Blount is always looking for ways to improve. November 18, 2011 at 6:27 pm

I’ve never heard the term “strafing” before- what’s that mean? I’ve definitely heard the buzz, though!

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