Quick Guide to a Bee Free Home!

With the first real cold front of the season blowing on in, it’s time for the bees to start really winding down for the year. While abnormally warm and wet seasons can affect the behavior of bees, generally a colony will spend the winter clustered together keeping themselves and the queen warm. They will eat through some, or all, of their food resources and raise very little brood until spring. Swarming season is just about complete, though Mother Nature often goes again the ideas of man, so it’s not unheard of to find bee swarms between October and February in the Rio Grande Valley and other places across the south.

If you’ve had to hire a beekeeper to remove a colony from your home, you already know how troublesome the whole process is! The best way to remove bees from your home is to simply prevent them from getting there in the first place. Bees are wonderful animals to own, so long as they are in a managed hive box. Preparing for swarm season during the winter can help prevent bees from establishing a colony on your property.

A honeybee only requires a hole 3/16th of an inch (roughly 5 millimeter) wide to fit in. If one bee can fit in, a whole colony can. Think of a pea, or the tip of your pinky; if you walk around the outside of a structure and could fit either item in that hole: seal it immediately.

Pink line indicates on a ruler how wide 3/16th of an inch is. Please note that the ruler will not be to scale, and the green bar indicates how large the average credit card is in comparison.

As discussed in a previous post, all feral bees in the RGV are Africanized Honeybees (AHB) and they slightly different house hunting requirements. While the average European Honeybee prefers a large cavity of around 31 liters (8 gallons) in volume, the Africanized honeybee colony will be happy with as little as 13 liters (3.4 gallons). What does this mean for the average homeowner? Feral bees are MORE than happy to occupy the soffits of your house, inside a wall, under a shed, or even in an overturned pot in your overgrown garden!

When bees create a nest, even after it’s removed, the old smell of comb, honey, and pheromones will remain. In the bee world it is a giant, neon sign saying, “Perfect Home Here!” and a hive will be more likely to move into the same exact spot, or at least close by. Repairing this area is very important. If the bee can’t get into the space, then how good it smells won’t matter.

Large cavities can be filled with spray foam or expanding insulation; however, these can ONLY be used to fill in gaps. Bees are strong animals capable of chewing through spray foam in just a few short hours. We’ve even seen hives dig themselves out after somebody sprayed their hive entrances with spray foam. The only really effective way to seal off gaps is with silicone caulking. The silicone is too chewy for a bee to bite or rip apart. During any construction or renovation project, the best bet is to ensure there are no gaps that need filling in the first place, but a the next best is to completely fill and seal any hole with caulking, wood putty, or even concrete and resin.

For motorhomes, trailer houses, and pier and beam houses, a homeowner needs to take extra care because bees will happily create an open-air nest under your house. Ideally it is best if the house is on a solid foundation, but barring that, creating a net barrier that is too small for a bee to enter will help reduce the risk of getting bees under the home. The net could be made with any strong, relatively tight knit material such as window screening. Unfortunately, because netting is easily damaged, it’s best to inspect this area, and any other area in your property, on a regular basis.

The last major area we find bees are under sheds. If the structure is not placed on a concrete pad and sealed, it creates an inviting home for feral bees. Often times metal skirting around the shed will have breathing or weep holes that can easily be blocked from insects by inserting a scrunched up piece of window screening. If a shed does not require weep holes, a beautiful way to ensure insects can’t live under the floor is by putting a raised garden bed around the area. While honeybees can dig, they are generally unwilling to dig out holes while looking for new homes unless they already know it’s there.

Last but not least! If you own any property you are wishing to develop, or haven’t maintained in a while, it is advisable that you do a detailed inspection of the area. Loud machinery can agitate feral hives and we hear countless stories of clients getting attacked by bees while mowing or cutting down trees because there was a colony in a soffit or shed on the property. Of course safety is the most important part here! You do not want to literally stumble into a nest. While honey bees do not like living on or near the ground, it is not uncommon to find them in a pile of wood, a log, or inside forgotten containers.

As always if you need any help with bees or even bee proofing your property it is always a good idea to get in contact with a local beekeeper for advice!

Africanized Honeybees in the Rio Grande Valley

Africanized Honey Bees (AHB) are very similar to non-Africanized bees in many ways, however once a hive reaches a large size the differences become quite apparent. Visually it is nearly impossible to tell the difference between high content AHB, a bee with low AHB genetic content, and a pure bred of any other Apis Melferia sub-species. Without genetic testing it is nearly impossible to confirm the genetics, yet we can be certain that any feral beehive or beehive that has been allowed to requeen themselves will have some level of AHB genetics.

Vacuuming up the bees before we even opened the wall. At this stage they had not ramped up; this is only a small portion of the bees that came out.

Today we encountered a hive that had been allowed to not only live, but thrive, on this homeowner’s property for several years. Being as industrious as any bee should, these bees had created a nest several feet long and contained 200+ pounds of honey. The first sting of the day occurred while we were just standing outside the hive; a bee went straight for the noggin and suits were immediately donned. We got our tools set up inside the shed and started vacuuming. Simply being inside the shed set these bees off on high alert and they started pouring out of their nest. Standing there we could see bees coming out of the ceiling right above us. Right next to us. A foot away from us. Okay over 2 feet away from us? Watching their activity made it so obvious that we were dealing with a monster of a hive! We could already tell roughly how large it was by the propolis and wax dripping from in-between the wood boards. If there was an “oh shit” moment, it was then.

But the bees weren’t satisfied with their performance. The longer we stood and vacuumed, the more ramped up they became. Pure bred European Honeybees only send out 10-20 guard bees on average, at least when we are discussing established hive boxes and equivalent sized feral nests. One of those differences between AHB and European bees is that guard reaction. An Africanized hive will quickly send hundreds, even over a thousand, bees to defend the hive. That’s the key, though, it is a DEFENSE. A European bee might only be mildly disturbed and then forget and forgive in a few hours, but an AHB colony has a memory that rivals the best of us. They’ll hold a grudge for several days, going after any perceived threat more vigorously than they would have before a disturbance.

The white comb is newer, but the darker comb has been there for years.

Africanized bees that we know and love in the Rio Grande Valley are descended from an experimental cross bred of the hardy East African Lowland honey bee (A. m. Scutellata) and the calmer Italian honey bee (A. m. ligustica) and the Iberian honey bee (A. m. iberiensis). While both the Italian and Iberian subspecies have been worked by beekeepers for thousands of years, the East African bee has been hunted for thousand of years by tribes, honey badgers and other wildlife thus they have evolved to be highly defensive and quick to anger. East African bees had more predators that would completely destroy hives, and their disposition shows.

In the United States, AHB provide robust genetics that allow them to thrive through drought, pests, and have the ability to find a home where regular European honey bees might not. They are not the evil “killer bees” that the media has perpetuated, and in the honey capital of Mexico they are even preferred as they are far superior at honey production.

However, their highly defensive nature does make them dangerous. “Killer bee” is a bad moniker, yet they didn’t get the name for nothing. Once an AHB hive gets bigger, has more babies to protect, more food to protect, their defensiveness gets kicked into overdrive. Today was a textbook case in Africanized defensive procedures. If it wasn’t for the fact that this house had a decent amount of greenery and we were working inside of a shed, it would have been possible that people or animals in the area could have also been attacked.

Bee removals of Africanized honey bees work very similar to a bee removal in a place without any AHB genetics except a beekeeper needs to be aware of when a removal will be too dangerous. It is a sad fact that AHBs have been responsible for the death of some people and animals.

An example of a glove after dealing with AHBs. All the white bits are stingers with venom sacks, and this is only a small portion of the stings. Most of them did not remain embedded in the glove.

Today we had to make to make the unfortunate, but necessary, decision to kill these bees. They were too big and too mean to even relocate to our apiary, and that’s assuming they didn’t harm any of the neighbors during the removal themselves. We hadn’t even exposed the hive yet, and the bees were attacking so hard even the stings hurt more than normal. There are a few small behaviors that signify whether a hive is going to be too dangerous to let live: how many come out of the hive with minimal disturbance, how hard they try sting you, and one harder to notice behavior. This last action is watching HOW they try to sting. It’s easiest to see on the mask of a bee suit. Most of the time, bees trying to get at the face will fly up against and walk about a mask. When bees are biting the mask, unable to be physically removed from the mask without killing the bee, and they make this little “C” shape where they are grabbing the mask with their mandibles AND trying to push their stinger through the net, that is when you can gauge that this hive is probably too risky.

These bees exhibited all of these behaviors and it was not shocking given how large the hive was.

We are always thrilled when people say that they want the bees to be removed safely and that they feel bad about possibly hurting them, however allowing a feral hive of bees to remain on a property not only risks the homeowner but also endangers any neighbors, too. Had these bees been removed two or three years ago, maybe even a few months ago during winter, they would have probably made it out alive. Well established hives are always more defensive, whether they be Africanized or not, but here in the RGV we need to make sure that any feral colonies are relocated as soon as they are noticed.

Bees are great to have in a backyard but having feral bees on a structures is just not safe. If you want to have bees on your property you can always contact a local beekeeper, beekeeping association, or even the local agricultural extension as they should know of at least a few keepers in the area.