As pollinators, bees are vital to feeding the world. Without bees buzzing from flower to flower, crop productions would be severely diminished. Honeybees are necessary and beneficial, but under certain circumstances they cause trouble in and around our homes. Honey bees will aggressively defend their nest, and their stings can cause severe pain and allergic reactions in some people. Honeybees sometimes make pests of themselves by creating their nests in voids in walls or behind siding on the outside of our homes. The honey produced by an active hive, can damage the integrity of the structure and cause extensive damage to your home. In such circumstances, the bees and the nests should be removed.
States and local municipalities may regulate how these nests should be removed. Because of the threat and spread of Africanized honey bees, some areas require that a feral or wild bee hive be destroyed and NOT relocated. Before taking action on bees in and around your home always check your local regulations. Your local extension agents will be able to inform you of specialized rules for your area.
Benefits of Honey Bees
Without bees, you may not have your morning coffee, affordable tomatoes on your salad, or even a juicy hamburger (bees pollinate the crops that are grown specifically to feed to cattle). Without bees the world would have an existential food crisis. Food shortages and malnutrition would be common. Without bees pollinating plants and flowers, foliage and greenery would become more scarce, causing environmental impacts. Bees provide us with the natural sweetener honey, which is also believed to have anti-bacterial properties. The wax produced by bees is used in many products including candles, lip balm, the coating on some cheeses, furniture polish, and sometimes chewing gum.
Due to many factors, the health of bee populations have been declining. The Pest Management Industry is cognizant of our impact on bees. Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is the most effective and environmentally sensitive principle of solving pest problems. When a pest control company follows the tenants of IPM there is minimal effect on non-target organisms, including bees. IPM always attempts to solve pest problems with minimal pesticide use. When pesticides are utilized to solve a problem, the applications are targeted rather than broadly applied. Followers of IPM carefully choose their products to ensure the active ingredient does not cause unnecessary harm to bees and other non-target organisms. By following the EPA approved label on the chosen product, treating the pest bees nesting in your attic or wall void will have minimal impact on bee populations in general. The most important step is to ensure the hive is removed and entry points are sealed. If not, other local honeybee colonies will attempt to move in or steal the remaining honey. This will extend your problem and possibly result in the destruction of other local managed hives.
The objective of a bee pest management program should be to reduce human encounters with the bees, but not to eliminate them from the entire area since they are beneficial pollinators of plants.
Honeybees in the Walls
Of course, we all know that bees sting. They can be fierce defenders of their hive and will protect their hard work from perceived invaders. The dichotomy with regards to bees, is balancing the safety of your family and visitors to your home with the benefits afforded to us by the presence of bees. Every household and business will have different tolerance levels for bees in and around the yard. If you have a family member with a known allergy to bee stings, you will be much more aggressive in removing bees from your yard. However, if you are an avid gardener with no known household allergy, you will likely encourage the presence of bees. Businesses that encourage outdoor recreation, such as outdoor restaurants, bars, or golf and tennis clubs will likely be more conservative in their acceptance of bees due to liability concerns. Regardless of where you fall on this spectrum, if bees have invaded your home, they should be dealt with as soon as practicable.
Honeybees have been known to find entry holes and nest in attics, wall voids, eaves, and behind the siding on the exterior of your home. When honeybees move in, they immediately begin to build a hive from wax and producing honey. If allowed to persist, a honeybee hive can accumulate gallons of honey inside your walls, your attic, and other areas of your home. If honeybees are killed and all of the hive and honey are not removed there is a chance all of this honey will seep into your walls, drip from your ceiling, and begin to rot inside your home.
When the bees are not present to repair the hive to keep the honey contained, the honey will begin to sour and ferment. The ancient drink mead is made of fermented honey, but is made under better regulated conditions than exists behind your drywall. The rotting and bubbling over of honey behind your walls is an odorous and sticky situation.
Types of Honeybees
There are about 20,000 species of bees in the world, and approximately 4,000 species of bees are native to the United States. Bees represent great diversity. Some bee species are solitary while others live in colonies. Honey bees make excessive amounts of honey, while other bees make only enough honey for the queen. Still other bee species do not make honey at all. Some bees are highly aggressive, while others will not sting. Some bees only pollinate one type of flower, while others are equal opportunity pollinators.
Despite the vast differences between the bee species, the most common bees that become pests are the European or Western Honeybee and the Africanized Honeybee. Although impossible to tell apart just by looking they have different nesting habits and behavior.
See below for details.
European or Western Honey Bee
- Size: ½ inch
- Color: black bands on orange to yellow-brown body
- Key Characteristics: black legs, antennae and eyes, very hairy
- Nests: built of wax in hives or hanging from trees or in wall voids
- Behavior: If nests are disturbed a few (5-10) of the many thousand bees will emerge to defend the nest up to 20 yards
Africanized Honey Bee or Killer Bees
Apis mellifera scutellata
- Size: ½ inch
- Color: black bands on orange to yellow-brown body
- Key Characteristics: black legs, antennae and eyes, very hairy
- Nests: built of wax in hives or hanging from trees or in wall voids like regular honey bees BUT also in ground, water meters and even barbeques
- Behavior: Highly defensive if nests are disturbed several hundred bees will emerge and defend the nest up to 40 yards; readily sting, more likely to abscond or swarm, take over European honey bee nests
Africanized honeybees are a result of a cross breeding experiment between two species of honeybees in the 1950s. A biologist in Brazil was working on breeding bees to produce more honey. Some of these “Africanized” bees escaped and began to colonize South America. The descendants of these bees are now found in the warm regions of the United States and their range is expected to continue to increase.
Africanized honey bees are much more aggressive than the European honey bees. More bees will attack and they will pursue you for a greater distance. Africanized bees make less wax and honey, and they tend to swarm more often than European honey bees, who swarm when the hive is crowded. When approaching a bee hive, it is impossible to tell if the bees are Africanized or European. An experienced beekeeper can determine which type the bees are by the bee’s behavior. The best bet is to treat all bee hives with extreme caution.
Honey Bees Social Structure
Honey bees are social insects, living in colonies of 60-120 thousand workers in the summer (plus a few hundred drones and a queen). Except during specific time periods, there is only one queen in the colony. She is easily distinguished from the other bees as her body is much longer. Her primary job is reproduction. One queen bee may produce 250,000 eggs in a year and over a million in her lifetime. The queen bee also produces a pheromone often called queen substance. This pheromone is ingested by the worker bees and inhibits their ability to reproduce. When her queen substance production begins to wane, the hive prepares for a new queen. By feeding young bee larvae the queen’s food, called royal jelly, a new queen can be groomed to succeed the fading queen bee.
Drones are male bees that are present in the hive during late spring and summer. These drones have no stinger, pollen basket, or wax gland. Their main function is to fertilize the virgin incoming queen. Once they mate, they die.
The vast majority of bees within a hive are worker bees. Under normal circumstances they do not lay eggs, rather they spend their days cleaning and repairing the hive, caring for the young and the queen. They process the nectar that is brought in and build honey combs. They guard the entrance of the hive and alert the others of any danger. Eventually, they will forage for nectar, sap, pollen, and water.
When a hive becomes overpopulated, the hive will split in two. The queen from the established colony will leave the nest with workers and a few drones. This is called a bee swarm. Scouts for the new colony will explore the area in search of a new home. During this process, if the scouts identify an entry into your home, they will alert the others. If the location is deemed appropriate, they will set up a hive in your attic, wall, or in the eaves of your home. Your home is vulnerable during this time to bee intrusions if you have previously had a bee infestation. If the last bits of hive and honey have not been removed and cleaned, the scout bees will smell the pheromones from the previous hive and deduce your home is promising place to set up shop.
Preventing Bees Around Your Home
Honey bees are the primary pollinators of 2/3 of the food we eat, either directly or indirectly. They gather nectar from flowers to make honey and collect pollen from flowers during pollination and use them for food. When there are few nectar sources blooming, honey bees will forage in any source that has sugar, from trash cans to soft drink cans, to sweets like candy and fruits. Eliminating bee’s access to these items can reduce bee interactions near your home.
Below are some general tips to reduce the likelihood of bee contacts.
- Avoid wearing strong perfumes
- Keeping sweet items covered. This includes recycle bins and garbage cans that contain soda cans or fruit scraps.
- Change bin and can liners often and clean cans and bins with soap and water regularly.
- It is recommended that all outside garbage cans and recycle bins be covered with a self-closing lid.
- Don’t walk barefooted on the playground or in the yard.
- Don’t harass bees by swatting at them or going near nests.
- Avoid panic when encountering stinging insects or nests.
- Many more injuries and deaths from encounters with bees result from panic reactions including running into traffic, etc. than from the insect sting.
- Fix plumbing leaks, gutters that hold water, etc. to eliminate access to water.
Proactive bee-proofing reduces liability. Bee-proof the property by eliminating harborage areas by sealing openings in exterior surfaces greater than 1/8 inch. Attractive honey bee harborages have a small opening, but open up into a larger space on the inside. European honey bees prefer enclosed nests away from people, such as walls, masonry steps, bleachers, fences, playground equipment, etc. Bee proofing for Africanized honey bee is a little more difficult as they will nest almost anywhere; they don’t mind being exposed or near people. Africanized honey bees have been found in and around water meters, manholes, gutter-down spouts and pipes.
Other potential bee hive sites include:
- External structures of the property, e.g. chimneys, eaves
- Other structures, e.g. garages, outbuildings, sheds, playground equipment
- Permanent fixtures around the property, e.g. signs, fence posts, and utility infrastructures
- Clutter around the property, e.g. empty containers, lumber piles, cinder blocks, old tires, abandoned vehicles
- Vegetation, e.g. hollow trees, tree branches
Nesting sites can be reduced by capping open fence pipe ends, screening vents, drains, downspouts or plumbing with 1/8” hardware cloth. Seal gaps, holes and other openings into voids in walls, doorways, eaves and roofs with filler, caulk or foam. Close off holes in water meters with duct tape. Be careful however, do not seal bees into a hole. Especially in buildings, sealing bees in will force the bees deeper inside and possibly result in bees entering the living area.
To prevent bees from coming indoors ensure that all screens are in good condition and doors are kept closed. In addition, an individual bee can be removed with a vacuum or a simple flyswatter.
In order to prevent honey bees from reinfested any area, remove, clean, and sanitize any area that has previously been colonized by bees. If honeycomb or honey is present within a space, and new bees can access it, they will gladly take over the old hive rather than starting from scratch.
Protect Your Self Against Honey Bee Stings
If you are in an area where Africanized bees are common, you should assume the bees you are dealing with are vicious and easily provoked. Often a Pest Management Professional or professional bee keeper is advised to deal with aggressive hives. Should you choose to tackle your bee problem yourself, make sure you wear appropriate personal protective equipment.
- A bee suit or loose-fitting, heavy-fabric coverall with long sleeves. This is worn over regular pants and a long-sleeved shirt to provide extra protection from stings.
- A bee veil or hood that either contains its own hat or can be fitted over a light-weight pith helmet or other brimmed hat that holds the veil away from the head.
- A metal-screen face plate that extends around the head is a desirable feature. Check the veil carefully for tears before each use.
- A veil that attaches to a bee suit is ideal to prevent bees from crawling in between.
- Sturdy high-topped boots with pant legs secured over the boots to prevent bees from getting into trousers.
- Gloves with extra-long arm coverings to protect the wrists.
- Thoroughly duct- tape all connections between the bee suit and boots, gloves, veil, hat to prevent bees from crawling inside.
Bumped by a Bee
Bee stingers have barbs which prevent the bee from pulling up and removing its stinger after it has stung you. After a bee stings, the stinger is left in its victim and the bee dies. For this reason, sometimes a bee will “bump” into you rather than sting you. It feels like a finger flick. This bump is a warning, the bee is giving you a chance to back off; and you should. If you swat at the bee or continue to approach the hive, the alarm will sound, and you will find yourself in the midst of swarming bees. If you are bumped by a bee, run in the opposite direction of the hive.
What to do if Someone is Stung by a Honeybee
Many people are allergic to bee stings, and to them a single sting is a serious medical event. When you are stung by a bee, your first instinct is correct, run away! The severity of the attack depends upon how many bees are in pursuit and how far they are willing to chase you. Africanized bees, when they feel their hive is threatened, will send more bees out after you and they will pursue you for a greater distance. Run in a straight line at least the length of a football field, or 100 yards. Seek shelter inside a building or a vehicle. Avoid other people unless they are offering you help.
Once the bees are no longer attacking, remove the stingers as quickly as possible. A single bee sting in a person who is not allergic, does not usually require medical attention. Always monitor anyone stung by a bee for allergic reaction. If the patient has a history of allergies, shows signs of severe swelling, or has trouble breathing, contact a doctor immediately. Usually people with known allergies, carry an Epi-Pen® (epinephrine) on them. This medication provides critical treatment and prevents anaphylactic shock.
If a physician is not necessary, other treatment options are available. The sting area can be soothed by applying a cold compress or ice pack to reduce swelling. An over-the-counter insect bite or sting product may be applied to lessen the pain. An antihistamine may also be given to relief itching and swelling to the sting area.
Inspecting for Honey Bees
In situations where an abundance of bees have been observed, or people have been stung in the area, you may need to search out and locate the bee hive. Honey bee nests can be located in a variety of places including in the ground, in masonry or other wall voids, on the eaves of buildings, on fences or in trees. Ground nests are often in sheltered locations such as under shrubs. Ground nests are almost always Africanized honey bees.
Depending upon your tolerance for bees and the risk factors for serious injury or liability, you should know where the hive is located as you decide what, if anything to do with it. The goal of bee pest control is to reduce harmful interactions with humans and pets, while sustaining a natural population of bees. In environments where these species occur frequently, a monthly inspection of buildings and grounds for nests during the active season may be warranted, with more frequent inspections during nesting seasons for problem species.
As you inspect, look for bees coming and going from an opening in a tree or structure. Use complaints from customers or your family members to guide your inspection. Start your inspection in the area where the greatest number of bee sightings have been reported.
Swarms of bees occur when a new queen is in transition and searching for a new nest with her colony. Swarms are most common in the spring or early summer (March-July). During this period check weekly for bee activity around the property. In most cases swarms are harmless. In most cases you can wait 24 hours to see if the swarm moves on and keep children away from the site. If it appears the bees have decided to stay, seek removal by qualified individual or company.
Monitoring for Honey Bees
Swarm traps can be used to capture swarming colonies before they become established in a structure or near people. They are the most effective in the spring and summer. Most bee monitors are a small hive box or a simple cardboard pot attached to piece of plywood. “Swarm Lures” are available that will increase the catch rate. Check your swarm traps weekly for activity. These traps allow for easy removal of colonies that swarm onto the property. If you do catch a swarming bee colony in a box, you may call a local bee keeper. If the bees are not Africanized, they may be happy to take them off your hands and add them to their own hives.
How To Get Rid of Honey Bees
Once you decide that a bee hive should be removed, there is no shame in calling in the professionals. Often, bee removal requires scaling heights on ladders, in unfamiliar clothing, while bracing against the fear of attack. Skill and experience is required for safe bee removal. Of course, should you decide to take care of the bee hive yourself, be sure to wear proper Personal Protective Equipment as described above, and execute a meticulously prepared plan. Gather your materials, research and decide upon which chemicals to use, and notify the neighbors to stay inside and turn off their outdoor lights. If you decide to undertake this task yourself, here are some tips and tricks to have a safe and successful bee treatment and removal.
Choosing an Insecticide for Bee Treatments
When an insecticide is considered necessary for the control of bees, the best approach is to confine the pesticide to the nest itself. Anyone applying insecticides should use special clothing that protects against the chemical as well as against bee stings. Insecticides should be applied in the evening when children are absent, the wasps are inside the nest, and cooler temperatures reduce insect activity.
A number of insecticides are registered for use against bees, including dusts, silica aerogels, pyrethrins, and pyrethroids. Pyrethroid insecticides work well and should pose no significant environmental or health risks when applied directly to bee hive. Read the label on your chosen products carefully, and verify the nest location is on your product’s label as an approved site (i.e. wall void, in ground ect)
Pesticides must be used in accordance with their EPA-approved label directions. In some states, applicators must be certified to apply pesticides and should always wear protective equipment during applications. Do not apply these materials when buildings are occupied, and never apply them where they might wash into drains or sewers. Always remember to remove the hive and seal the entrance to prevent other local colonies from moving in or attempting to steal the remaining honey.
Do not use gasoline. Africanized bees are the most common bees that build nests underground. Gasoline should never be poured into underground nest holes. This dangerous practice creates a fire hazard, contaminates the soil, and prevents the growth of vegetation for some time. A ground application of gasoline poses greater harm to children and the environment than a bee hive.
Pesticides come in different formulations, each having benefits in certain situations. Different active ingredients operate on the insect in different ways. Some pesticides are fast acting while others are slow acting. While it is satisfying to see immediate death, slower acting pesticides allow the active ingredient to be transferred to all of the nest’s residents.
- Dusts – Residual dusts can be very effective at controlling nests found in wall voids and underground nests. However, dusts have slower knock-down effect than sprays.
- Nests in a wall void – When treating a nest in a wall void, you must figure out the boundaries of nest behind the wall. You can often figure out where the nest is by listening carefully at the wall for bee activity. Once the boundaries of the nest have been determined, holes can be drilled into the wall and an appropriately labeled residual dust can applied. The holes can be plugged with steel wool to prevent the bee’s escape.
- Outdoor ground nests can be similarly controlled by approaching the nest at night and dusting the entrance.
- Wasp “Freeze” Products – These aerosol products are designed to project a stream of spray 10 to 20 feet and contain highly evaporative substances that “freeze” or stun the bees. In addition, these products contain Pyrethrin or a pyrethroid to kill the bees before they recover.
- These products are very handy for “instant control” of small nests or to eliminate guard bees near the entrances of large nests before other chemical control methods are used.
- Silica Aerogel and Pyrethrins – Silica aerogel is made from sand and works by absorbing the outer waxy coating on the insect’s body. Once this coating is gone, the insects cannot retain water and die of dehydration.
- For bee control, these products are formulated as an aerosol and combined with pyrethrins that can be applied into an underground nest or a nest in a wall void.
- Other liquid sprays
- These products are faster acting than dusts, but not as fast as the “freezing” aerosols.
- These include most common insecticides. Remember to check the label to verify your treatment location is an approved site.
- The outer layer on bee hives are designed to shed water, so these products may need to be injected into the nest for complete control.
How to Apply Insecticide to a Bee Hive
Once you have gathered your safety supplies and chosen your insecticides, it is time to treat the nest. Always treat the nest in the evening, think about details such as lighting, ladder safety, and bystanders. Do not underestimate the aggressive nature of honey bees.
- Secure the area – During control efforts, stinging insects may attack anyone within several hundred feet. Schedule control efforts when there is the least amount of people in the area (evening or night). Monitor the area after control until all stinging insects are gone from the nest area. Notify any neighbors in the area to stay indoors and turn off porch lights.
- For large nests, utilize “distraction techniques” – At night, bees will be attracted to lights.
- Set up bright lights (shop lights or car headlights) about 20 feet away from the nest.
- Set up the lights on the opposite side of the nest that you will be working from.
- Do not stand between the lights and the nest.
- As the angry bees swarm from the nest, they will be fly towards the light and away from you.
- Wet/Dry Vacuum – During the treatment you can place the nozzle of a shop vacuum near the entrance of the nest. Have a few inches of soapy water in the canister of the vacuum. As bees swarm out to defend their nest, many will be sucked up by the vacuum, thus reducing their ability to sting you.
- Vacuuming alone will not safely eliminate a large bee hive. This should be used as an aid during and after a chemical treatment only.
- For large nests with multiple openings, you may need several vacuums set up.
- Use a fast-knockdown “freezing aerosol”. For a large nest, this freezing aerosol will kill the hyper aggressive guard bees posted at the entrance. For a small hive, this may be all you need.
- Use a residual product such as a dust or residual spray to kill the colony.
- Dust will be transferred throughout the nest by the insects ensuring complete control.
- Liquid sprays may need to be injected with an injection wand to penetrate into large hives.
- Be sure all parts of the nest are thoroughly treated.
Removing the Honey and the Bee Hive
Your treatment will be considered successful, if you eliminate all the bees from the hive. However, if you don’t take the additional step of removing the hive and the accompanying honey, you risk re-infestation by another bee colony in a very short period of time. When bees are swarming, they can smell the presence of another hive. Aggressive bees such as Africanized bees, will take full advantage of an “abandoned” hive that is already constructed. If a hive was treated with insecticide, do not attempt to save the honey for human consumption.
Depending upon the location of the nest, the work of preventing reinfestation can look very different. A bee hive hanging in a tree can be easily removed and bagged in a trash bag. Ground nests should be collapsed and filled with sand. Bee hives indoors or hidden behind siding or in the highest eaves of the home are much more complicated.
A hive within a wall void in your living room may contain gallons of honey. This situation requires breaking open walls or ceilings in order to properly clean and remove the honey comb and honey. Once the hive is removed, it should be cleaned with soapy water, ammonia, or bleach to remove the pheromones left by the bees. If the stored honey is not removed, the wax honey comb may melt causing honey to spill and drip into the drywall. As most people have experienced, a single drop of honey in the kitchen can bring foraging ants. Gallons of honey behind the wall will cause other insects and animals to take advantage of the easy offering.
After a successful bee treatment and hive and honey clean up, seal all openings that the bees used to enter the structure. By making the structure inaccessible to future bees, you can prevent reinfestation of bees and other insects and wildlife in the future. Continue to monitor the area to ensure other colonies do not try to reestablish in the same area.