First, don’t go bugs
by Merritt Clifton
For years I was the fellow whom people would call for help when they had problems with bees and closely related species. I never had much trouble handling bees, wasps, or hornets, but even though handling them may not be hard, there is not any one simple answer about what to do if they invade your living or working space, because so much depends on the specific details of the situation.
Find the source
The first thing to do is always to figure out exactly where the hive or wasp or hornet nest is. Typically the problem begins when someone disturbs a hive or nest by accident. A house will be full of bees, wasps, or hornets, but no one will know where they are coming from.
Usually bees, wasps, or hornets are disturbed by something humans, pets, or livestock do to the hive, or around the hive, often unawares. People tend to think first of deliberate actions, especially movements and movements of objects.
Sounds & odors
But the source of the disturbance to a bee hive, or a wasp or hornet nest can as easily be a sound or an odor.
For example, bees, wasps, or hornets might mistake the sound of a lawn mower or hedge trimmer for the sound of a rival hive, and therefore attack the person using the piece of equipment.
Or something someone does with a room spray that has a fruit scent might intensely interest bees.
Keep everything in the vicinity of the buzzing calm, watch carefully, and eventually the bees, wasps, or hornets will lead you to the hive.
This is where the situation may become difficult.
First, hope for something easy. Most bee, wasp, and hornet congregations in problematic places have an easily resolved temporary cause.
Bees are easiest to induce to leave. If bees are inside a house, the hive is on the outside of the house, and the bees only came in as result of an open window and a bowl of flowers or fruit on the table attracting them, you can just close the window or remove the bowl, and there will not be any more trouble.
If the source of the problem is a scented room spray, either closing a window or opening one, to air out the room, will usually cause the bees to disperse.
Take out the garbage
Garbage pails full of fruit peels and cores are an often overlooked attraction to bees. Just take out the garbage.
Another easy bee removal situation that I encountered involved a hive inside an old cardboard box of junk that someone had carried in from the barn to sort. Taking the box outside was the whole solution.
Figuring out what causes wasps or hornets to congregate inside a house or around a window or doorway can be more difficult. Usually, though, the reason is that the wasps or hornets have started a nest somewhere nearby––meaning that the nest will have to be moved.
A bee hive or wasp or hornet nest may be in the walls or the attic of a building, or beneath shingles, or even inside a thatched straw roof or bales forming a straw bale doghouse, in which case the nest will be accessed by the insects through cracks in the adobe exterior surface.
In a case of this sort, you have a much bigger problem.
Even then, though, the bees, wasps, or hornets do not really want to come into the living quarters. They will have an opening to the outdoors, and will prefer to go outdoors if they can––usually.
Once I had a situation where bees were coming inside because their outside exit was plugged by ice. Other times bees came inside because a leak had developed in the roof and rain was flooding the hive. Minor household repairs will solve that sort of problem.
Stay off of high ladders
If a hive or wasp or hornet nest is beyond easy human reach, trying to remove it before the weather does may be extremely dangerous.
I don’t recommend trying to move a hive or wasp or hornet nest using a high ladder, especially if inexperienced. Not many people will be able to withstand repeated painful stings, in event of making even a small mistake, without making an awkward move that results in a fall––and even more stings, after falling.
An inexperienced person might be able to move a hive or wasp or hornet nest using a man-lift or cherry-picker, but hiring an experienced beekeeper to do the job with the proper equipment, including protective clothing, will be a much better idea.
“In the still of the night”
If a hive or wasp or hornet nest is self-contained and intact, and you are determined to move it yourself, wait until the cool of the night, when the insects are least active. Dress in a long-sleeved shirt and gloves, with a broad-brimmed hat and veil. Tuck your pants cuffs into your socks, and tuck in your shirt tails.
Remove the hive or nest as gently as possible. A broad-bladed scraper may be needed to detach the hive or nest from whatever it is attached to. Try to detach the hive or nest quickly, with a minimum of bumping. Wrap it quickly in a towel, put it gently into a cardboard box of appropriate size, close the top of the box, and carry it to wherever hive or nest can be relocated.
You have to make sure, though, that the hive or nest really is all self-contained and can be moved without tearing it open. If the hive is made as they often are, with parts of the house serving as some of the walls, there is not going to be any safe, easy, humane way to move it. All you can do is the best you can to minimize the harm.
Natural fibers not advised
Again, it is best to wait until night, when the bees are inside and quiet. Try to encircle as much of the hive as you can with a black polyethylene bag, and use as wide-bladed a scraping tool as you can to push as much of the hive as you can into the bag. Close the bag as quickly as you can. Take the bag to your recommended new hive location, and leave it there, with the top open. The bees, wasps, or hornets will do the rest.
I do not recommend using a natural fiber bag. Anything that the bees perceive as an opening will quickly be opened and used as an escape route. Bees will go right through a burlap or paper bag.
Often it is not necessary for an experienced beekeeper to smoke bees, wasps, or hornets before moving a hive or nest, but sometimes, especially when small children are present, smoking the insects will be necessary. A small child can have a very severe reaction to a sting that will barely affect an adult.
A key point to remember: the ingredient of bee venom and the ingredient of stinging nettles that causes swelling is the same, a natural chemical called formic acid, and it can be neutralized with baking soda. Wasps have an alkaline sting, which can be neutralized with vinegar. Decide in advance what you will do in the event of accident, and have the right solution handy.
Smoke ’em in
There are as many different ways to smoke bees, wasps, and hornets as there are beekeepers. Some use tobacco smoke. I knew one who used marijuana. I just use some dry grass. You probably will not need very much smoke, if you do the job correctly. Experienced beekeepers who use cigarettes will only use about half a cigarette to smoke a large hive. You do, however, have to put the smoke directly in front of the entrance to the hive. If the bees perceive smoke obstructing the entrance, they will mostly stay safely inside.
Make the smoke in a glass jar, a measuring cup, or even a coffee cup. Direct the smoke with a funnel or cardboard cone. If you have leaping flames that might ignite a cardboard funnel, wait until the flames die back before actually trying to do the smoking.
You may kill some insects by accident while smoking them. If smoking bees, these will usually be soldier bees, who are on a suicide mission anyway, trying to sting you. Most of the bees will survive.
Don’t smoke an active swarm
One stupid mistake I have seen made many times by inexperienced people is trying to smoke bees, wasps, or hornets while large numbers are still flying around in confusion after a hive or nest is disturbed.
The people make huge amounts of smoke, which only seems to further infuriate the insects. Everyone gets stung, hundreds of insects die, and all for no reason.
Let the hive or nest calm down first. Give the insects plenty of time to cool off. Then smoke them quickly and move them efficiently.
Concerning protective clothing, cover as much of your body as possible. Most important is to have eye protection.
With that much said, however, I have moved bees safely in emergency situations while wearing no protective clothing at all, with only sunglasses for eye protection. Do not do it that way if you can avoid it, but know that it can be done if necessary.
I have only been uncomfortably stung twice, both times by hornets. Once I accidentally ran a lawn mower over a hornet nest, and once I mistook a hornet nest for a soccer ball and kicked it.
I learned to handle bees from an old beekeeper who was never stung in my presence, and I was never stung in his bee yard either.
It is important to move calmly around bees at all times, and I would recommend not wearing anything that smells like flowers, or has a floral pattern on it.
They don’t want to harm you
Bees, who disembowel themselves when they sting, really do not want to sting anyone. Try to avoid scaring them, and they will cooperate with almost anything, including removing their honey, of which they typically produce a huge surplus.
Wasps and hornets have straight stingers, and can sting repeatedly, but usually will not if you keep calm.
Note: I have never dealt with Africanized “killer bees,” which are a dangerous hybrid of African and European honey bees, at large in South America since 1957 and now also common in the U.S. By reputation, Africanized bees anger sooner, attack longer, and are harder to smoke.
Dealing with Africanized bees is not a job for amateurs; hire experienced help if you think you might have Africanized bees.
Check the latest bee maps online to see where Africanized bees have been reported.
I have a file folder full of accounts of Africanized bee attacks, and most often it is fairly easy to see where the victim did something really stupid, like trying to drown a hive with a hose or letting a dog (most often a pit bull) attack the hive.