As nuisance insects go, though, bees aren’t the worst problem that affect humans. Unlike mosquitoes, ticks and cockroaches, bees don’t carry disease. They’re typically fairly harmless, only stinging when they feel as though their lives or their homes have been threatened. And despite the myth that they frequently make their hives near human dwellings, they actually prefer to do their building in more remote locations.
However, bees can cause quite a bit of trouble, especially for those allergic to them, or who happen to encounter the more aggressive strains of bees (and their close cousins, wasps, for whom they are sometimes mistaken). If you have a significant bee problem, it’s time to take a closer look, determine what needs to be done, and call in a professional if necessary.
Important Note: Ecological Benefits of Bees
Bees bear a huge responsibility in the pollination of many of our flowers and crops. Without them, we would have to pollinate plants by hand or rely on other insects to do the job. But while flies, beetles, wasps, ants, butterflies and moths all play their roles in pollination as well, none is so prolific or so reliable as the bee.
The importance of the honey bee really cannot be understated. They are responsible for $30 billion a year in crops. According to the BBC, they pollinate 70 of the around 100 crop species that feed 90% of the world.
A bee extinction could mean losing all the plants that bees pollinate, all of the animals that eat those plants, and so on up the food chain. Groceries would have half the current amount of fruit and vegetables. In fact, the global human population of 7 billion may not be able to sustain itself.
Unfortunately, we are much too close to this potential outcome. Colony Collapse Disorder is bringing us even closer to the brink. National Geographic defines this as “a phenomenon that occurs when the majority of worker bees in a colony (hive) disappear, leaving behind a queen, food, nurse bees and baby bees. Without the mature worker bees to bring nectar and pollen back to the hive, it collapses (dies).” While the rates of Colony Collapse have slowed somewhat over the past few years, the concern is still all too real.
It’s crucial that you don’t take a no-holds-barred approach to bee management, nor should you automatically assume that bees are a nuisance.
For this reason, it’s crucial that you don’t take a no-holds-barred approach to bee management, nor should you automatically assume that bees are a nuisance. In fact, many people actively encourage a bee presence in their landscape by planting bee-friendly specimens, and familiarize themselves with native bees, which rarely pose a pest problem or sting humans, in order to help them thrive.
Whatever approach you do decide to take will depend on what types of bees are on your property and what types of trouble they’re causing.
People who have been stung by bees multiple times, or who have experienced a swarm, may understandably desire to immediately get rid of all bee activity and every last trace of them. This becomes even more understandable if you have family members who are allergic to bees, or are allergic yourself.
Before you can make a smart decision, however, it’s important to become acquainted with the much-vaunted “killer bee.” A mix between European and African honey bees, the “Africanized honey bee” may not actually be as much of a problem as they’ve been made to seem.
While they have caused the death of several hundred people over the last 50 years, says the BBC, it isn’t because their venom is more lethal. Without an allergic reaction, it would take around a thousand bee stings to deliver a lethal dose of toxin to an average-sized adult. European bees are rarely this combative. Africanized bees can be.
Africanized honey bees are not widespread in the United States, however, and in places where they’re been established for a few decades, their aggressive behavior appears to be mellowing with time. As they look very similar to European honey bees (the type commonly found all over the U.S.), your best bet for identification is to call in a professional.
Some people do have serious allergic reactions to bee venom. This includes dizziness, fainting, vertigo, headache, vomiting and even convulsions, according to the Mayo Clinic. If you or someone in your family has an allergy, you will want to take stronger steps to prevent a bee presence on your property.
Identification of Bees and Their Activity
People tend to lump all stinging insects together, but this is false. Bees and wasps, are different in their appearance and behavior. Some of the most common you might encounter include:
- There are more than 4,000 species of native bees in the United States, almost all of which are harmless to humans and important to ecology. Native bees range hugely in size and appearance.
- If you see honey bees, it is likely that they have escaped from large commercial hives, which travel across the country for use in agricultural applications, but can also set up wild hives. Africanized honey bees are a subset of these.
- Carpenter bees bore into wood to set up nests, and are sometimes called “wood bees.” These look different from typical honey bees, with shiny abdomens and larger bodies.
Of course, sometimes “bees” are not bees at all, but are yellow jackets or another type of wasp. It’s important to note, however, that many so-called “problem” insects are not actually problems at all, and that even “friendly” bees can be a major nuisance sometimes. The real bottom line isn’t whether or not a bee or wasp belongs to a particular genus or species, but whether it is actually causing trouble in your home or life. That’s when it becomes a pest.
When Bees Become Pests
Again, bees are not automatically pests. Rather, it is their behavior that dictates whether or not you need to deal with them. A few of the most common issues that arise with bees include:
- Tunneling into your home: Carpenter bees setting up shop can weaken your home’s foundations and support structures and should be removed immediately.
- Building hives in your home can ruin its structural integrity. When filled with honey, hives can weigh anywhere from 20 to 100 pounds, or even more. Imagine that pulling on the inside of a wall, ripping out insulation, and destroying other structures. Also, honey damages many home-building materials.
- Stinging: If you or family members are stung frequently or suffer allergies, consider removing or relocating a hive. Pets are also susceptible to stings, and some are allergic.
- Swarming: While we associate the word “swarming” with any cloud of insects, it actually has a specific definition when it comes to bees. Swarming is when part of the colony breaks off with its own queen and leaves, en masse, to form another colony elsewhere. Because their queen is on the move and they are temporarily homeless, bees tend to be more aggressive at this time. However, swarming is a temporary activity, so you are unlikely to experience an ongoing problem with it. The exception is if there’s a large colony nearby that frequently outgrows its home and sends part of the colony packing.
Even frightening insects such as yellow jackets and wasps are not necessarily problems. Many wasps eat other pests (such as ticks) and pollinate garden crops, so they should not be killed unless they are truly causing a problem. Even if you do need to eliminate them, the first step is prevention.
Preventing Pest Bees and Wasps
One of the easiest solutions to your bee or wasp problem is to take precautionary measures. If you’re finding you get stung in the garden, for instance, you can reduce this incidence by wearing darker clothing. White and yellow are bright, noticeable colors that look like flowers and attract stinging insects. Fragrances do as well, so you should avoid wearing perfume or strong-smelling shampoos before heading out to the yard.
Food is another attractor. This is less true of honey bees and native bees, who are mostly drawn to flowers, and more true of wasps and yellow jackets. Where possible, leave lights off at night, as this attracts a range of insects.
Secure entrances to your home, especially underneath it. If you leave openings, bee colonies can move in and set up shop. You should also avoid leaving plant containers or buckets lying around. Out-of-the-way places like garden sheds or basements these attract colonies to move in. Colonies also favor empty pipes, such as the type used to build swingsets or playsets. If you bring these onto your property, your first step should be to block up the bottoms.
Treatment of Solitary Bees
The temptation when you see a bee is often to kill it so as to avoid the possibility of getting stung. While, again, this is a natural instinct, it’s really not that helpful. One bee has no impact on the colony as a whole. In any case, most bees won’t sting anyway unless they are disturbed. In fact, swatting at a bee or otherwise menacing is one of the best ways to guarantee a sting, because it puts them on the defensive.
In the case of yellow jackets, it’s an especially bad idea to kill one. Both bees and yellow jackets communicate through a complicated chemical signaling system known collectively as “pheromones.” The pheromones released when a yellow jacket dies make other yellow jackets in the area much more aggressive, and more likely to sting.
If a bee lands on you, remain still and wait for it to go away. Instruct children that the proper response when encountering bees is to walk away slowly or wait for them to leave. If you encounter a bee in your car, calmly pull over, open the windows or doors, and wait for it to leave. While you may guide it out, avoid swatting.
When to Call a Professional
Unless you are taking the simple precaution of filling in a ground nest or removing one from eaves when you are sure all bees or bee-like insects have left the vicinity, you should never attempt to deal with bees on your own. While they are typically not aggressive creatures, bees will absolutely sting and even swarm if they feel their home is being tampered with or their queen endangered.
A much better approach is to call an exterminator. They have the necessary knowledge to assess the situation, determine if the colony can/should be saved, and remove it with the least possible danger to the people in the surrounding area.
For the most part, professionals will not need to use insecticides, because bee colonies are rarely dangerous in and of themselves. The whole job can usually be done without ever spraying or using a chemical.