Understanding Honey Bees. Separating Fact from Fiction

Yes. Bees have many different behaviors. For every action that bees do, there seems to be three ways for humans to describe it. Many of the motivations attributed to bees are simply hogwash, imagination, anthropomorphization, wives tales or urban legend. Because keeping people and pets safe from bees, and because bees contribute significantly to American food security, it becomes important to understand honey bees enough to separate fact from fiction. This isn’t the place to explain all about the honey bees. But, judging from the many thousands of phone calls American Bee Control receives each year from folks who “just have a question,” we explain here the truth behind some of America’s most persistent falsehoods about what honey bees do, and don’t do. No kidding.

  1. Tall tale: If bees bump into you, they are warning you not to approach their hive.
    1. Bee Fact: When flying bees purposely bump into a mammal, they aren’t signaling a warning. They are acquiring your scent. Those advance guard bees take the scent of the individual that they deem to be the approaching predator and recruit other guard bees to focus their potential attack on that individual. Granted, dogs bark to warn intruders away. Cats will hiss at an aggressor. Horses neigh/whinny/bray (depending on where their people hail from) when concerned. But bees function so very deliberately in defense of their colony that they concentrate their eventual attack on the specific individual whom the advance guard bees acquire the scent from. Maybe other strains of bees in other parts of the world behave differently than the feral bees of Southern Arizona, but it is abundantly clear from thousands of cases that bees recruit their hive mates to attack pre-designated targets. It is widely understood that bees have sophisticated systems for identifying and recruiting others from their hive to exploit preferable sources of nectar, pollen, water, tree sap for propolis production, mineral-rich water, and–when propagating a new daughter colony–desirable cavities for their future nest site. But when deliberately contacting a human or other large mammal, rest assured, they mean business. The prudent behavior is to retreat from the location immediately, before a stinging attack can be organized. Granted, that sounds a lot like “the bees are warning me to retreat.”
  2. Tall Tale: If bees are bothering you, just stand still and they will leave you alone.
    1. Bee Fact: In the American Southwest, you cannot count on bees “leaving you alone” just because you stay calm and stand still. There is no shame in leaving the bees their distance, until the beehive is relocated or otherwise dealt with. It is probably safe to say that every year since about 1995, people have suffered from mass-stinging attacks from bees, sometimes fatally. The number of horses and dogs that have been killed by bees is much higher than the deaths of humans. A significant reason why feral bees can live peaceably alongside humans for years at a time has to do with the hormone-plus-pheromone-driven behaviors of bees. The eldest of the adult bees have built up a high level of a hormone in their body that enables them to be very reactive to the life of their hive. Developing bees, in the larval phase (caterpillar stage, before metamorphosis starts) emit what is called “brood pheromone.” Among the functions of the brood pheromone is to indicate to the adult bees that “there is a lot at stake here, so this colony is well worth defending.” The presence of a large number of older adult bees in the presence of a large population of larvae (what beekeepers call “open brood”) is a formula for a very “hot hive” meaning a colony that is prone to sting and even launch a mass-stinging attack. Probably every human death in Pima County from mass-stinging has originated from this condition. (anaphylactic shock is an entirely different threat to human health, unrelated to the stress of multiple sting condition.) The bottom line is that if attacked or threatened with attack, the safest survival method is to get away AND get inside a house, a tent or a car until the attack subsides. It’s far better to get inside a car or tent with 40 (or 400) angry bees than to be outside with 4000 willing to give their lives to subject you to the “counterattack” they feel you deserve.
  3. Tall Tale: If attacked by bees, you can jump in a pool to get away from them.
    1. Bee Fact: Bees will hover over you when submerged. Because they are expert at differentiating a mammal’s eyes, nose and mouth from other body parts, they will–during an attack–gladly sting your face when you emerge for a breath. How long can they persist in watching over the target of their attack? Until as much as 15 minutes after sunset. How can they persist so long in attack mode? Some of the attackers hold station over the submerged person while others take turns returning to the beehive to load up more honey to use as flight fuel. In springtime, when flowers abound, attack bees have been observed retreating to nearby flowers to refill with nectar in order to persist in attacking. The bottom line is that the safest defense from a mass-stinging attack is to get indoors, whether a vehicle, a tent or a building.
  4. Tall Tale: If attacked by bees, you can run downwind until you safely outrun them.
    1. Bee Fact: While this it technically a true statement, there are very few Americans who are fast enough to outrun angry bees and fit enough to do so for the necessary distance. The top speed of honey bees is about 15 miles per hour. Given the small percentage of people that are ever able to achieve that speed and the very short duration of such a sprint, the practical response to this tall tale is: “just plain false.” Arizona’s feral bees have been observed to chase a victim for over one and a half miles, unrelentingly. It has been reliably observed in the case of a large scale attack that even after driving a mile away, if upwind of the colony, a determined stinging attack needs only a few minutes to reacquire the subject’s location and resume the attack, including recruiting additional hive mates to join in. These behaviors aren’t very difficult for bees, given the ways their normal information gathering, decision making and coordination are used in everyday foraging operations. They simply repurpose their systems to support the attack.
  5. Tall Tale: Africanized Honey Bees have no commercial value because they are all “killer bees.”
    1. Bee Fact: While it is true that some colonies of African Honey Bee heritage are much more highly inclined to defend their hive, compared to European Honey Bees, it is patently false to say that “all Africanized Honey Bees are Killer Bees.” Some of the most gentle bees ever known to beekeeping are clearly identified as mainstream Africanized Bees. In the estimation of one of the largest American beekeeping operations that relies on Africanized stock, only about one out of ten Africanized colonies is the kind that gives all Africanized Bees their Killer Bee reputation. When you account for the fact that the Africanized bee has traits far superior to European Honey Bees in terms of countering the influences of parasitic mites (Varroa destructor, ssp.) it becomes clear why some beekeepers opine that “the future of beekeeping in America will be written by the Africanized Honey Bee.” It should also be noted that, about a half century ago, when Brazil stopped fighting their “Africanized Bee invasion” and allowed the keeping of bees of undocumented heritage, honey production soared 40% almost immediately. The bottom line is that by relocating Arizona’s feral bee colonies, important genetic traits are introduced into ABC’s bee-breeding program and are expected to benefit beekeeping throughout the continent.

Please check back here as we add lots more fact-versus-fantasy information on honey bees and their relationship to mankind. And please feel free to email us with questions about bees and their behaviors.