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Colony Temper

Bees don't have to be bad tempered

Probably because honey bees have a sting they are expected to use it by both beekeepers and non-beekeepers. This is a pity because the vast majority of colonies are quite docile if not mistreated. If a colony is bad tempered they can be improved without much trouble. There is no need to keep bad tempered bees and quite frankly I think it is irresponsible to do so. On the odd occasion we all get a bad tempered colony and the good responsible beekeeper will sort it out quickly.

When I say "bad tempered" I mean all forms of aggression, whether it is stingers, meeters and greeters, followers, ankle tappers, etc.

I accept that some bees can be bad tempered and I think the reasons can be neatly put into 4 categories:-

  1. The bees. This is usually for a couple of reasons, firstly some bees are generally a bit bad tempered and it doesn't need much to fire them up. Some beekeepers, especially some of the commercial/semi-commercial ones seem to think it's O.K. to have bad tempered bees, but what about the general public who may get stung? I was semi-commercial at one stage and never found that bad tempered bees consistently produced more honey. I would never raise queens from a bad tempered colony, unless it had a trait no other colony had, or they were the only bees I had.

    In my experience pure races are usually docile, but if the colony is allowed to raise it's own queens they can become quite aggressive in a couple of generations. This is not always the case and I have had geneticists tell me it shouldn't happen, but it often does and enough for it to be something to avoid. It has become known as "F2 aggression", I have experienced it many times and I know others who have too.

  2. Conditions. Thundery weather is often blamed for bees being bad tempered, but my experience suggests this isn't always the case. When I had a lot of colonies I found that only some of them were bad tempered when it was thundery. I made a note of the good and bad ones and only raised queens from those that were good tempered during thundery weather. I have no evidence, but we often get days when the atmospheric pressure drops rapidly and I think this may be the cause. On one occasion at Wisborough Green BKA teaching apiary we had four people taking the BBKA Basic assessment in the morning. I had booked one-to-one tuition for another member in the afternoon. In the morning the sky was black and the mood of the normally docile bees was similar - they were VERY aggressive, but the candidates and assessors stuck it out. I tried to contact the member who booked for the afternoon to cancel, but couldn't get hold of him. He turned up, I told him what happened and we had lunch. The skies cleared and we fully inspected about 20 colonies. Neither of us got a sting! It isn't fair to assess bees under those conditions.

    Bees can be a bit "touchy", either when they are working a single nectar source, or when it comes to an end. This is often the case at oil seed rape or heather.

  3. Handling. I think a lot of the problems with bad tempered bees is caused by bad handling. I visit many BKAs, events and other people's apiaries and in many instances when bees get fired up they have a bit of help! In my opinion all colonies should have as little smoke as is needed and in my own case I give a puff at the entrance, another when taking the crown board or supers off and just enough to keep the bees under control, to move them to avoid crushing them or getting accidental stings.

    Some beekeepers are very good at handling, being gentle, with slow deliberate movements and an obvious respect for bees, but others use "crash bang" methods that include "rolling" bees and slamming down frames and boxes. This is not the way to treat bees and how can you assess a colony when you treat it as badly as that?

    I am fairly well known for my views about what I see as over protection of beekeepers. In my opinion the best handlers I see are those who aren't "booted and suited". If you get dressed up so you don't get stung (which is the reason for doing it in the first place), then how are you going to know how aggressive the bees are? You simply won't be able to assess the colony. On many occasions I have had to tell others to give a colony more smoke because the bees are pitching into me, when the handler isn't even aware of it.

  4. Combination of the above. Probably the most common is the rough handler who isn't bothered about the temper of their bees. They will probably be fully "booted and suited" and wearing thick welding gloves! These "beekeepers" won't know much about bee improvement and probably won't want to learn.

All the above are the fault of the beekeeper, but it's always the bees that get the blame. The answers are simple - you can reduce bad temper in your bees considerably by keeping good bees and treating them kindly.

When bad temper is mentioned there are often the usual "standard reasons" given, such as using perfumes, aftershave and shampoo, wearing certain clothes, the bees are short of food or queenless, etc. I only rarely see these and in my experience it is usually only with bees that are naturally bad tempered. If they are normally docile there doesn't often seem to be a problem.

Roger Patterson.