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.
(See also The Beekeeper’s Bible, by Richard A. Jones & Sharon Sweeney-Lynch.)
Jamaka Petzak says
Many thanks for this wonderful article! Lots of essential information there — and thanks for the tip on lawnmowers. Sharing to social media, of course.
Sharon Yildiz says
Great article. I’ll save this for the next time I have to move wasp nests. Usually, I find them at the stage when they’ve just begun building in my shed and there are about 10 total wasps. I have two anecdotes about related topics:
1) In grad school, I studied monkeys in Costa Rica. A classmate at the same field site was studying wasps for her Ph.D. She disturbed their nests by making holes, then observed the fixing process. Even though she sat there every day for 3 months messing up the nest, not a single wasp ever stung her. With a few exceptions, they really are very non-violent.
2) At my house where I now live, I discovered a yellow jacket swarm in an old chipmunk burrow in 2013–got a positive ID of the species using photos. There were likely thousands, with a dozen flying in or out at any time, every day. I was sure I’d be stung, but I didn’t want to kill them because they’re important pollinators. So I left them alone. Surprisingly, they left us alone too. I mowed over and alongside their nest every week for two summers without ever being stung. Neither of my dogs was stung. This past summer, they weren’t there–I assume they had died over the winter or moved away. Anyway, I’m glad I gave peace a chance, and so are the 50+ species of flowers in my gardens. 🙂
Rich Mc Lellan says
In the parts of California where the weather is mild, yellow jacket wasps winter over, individuals do not die off, and hives can get huge. They are nothing to mess around with. My most recent encounter was with a huge underground hive that exited through a hole the size of a mouse burrow, but was connected to a much larger rabbit burrow. The exact location was uncovered when cutting long grass with a weed trimmer. Yellow jackets are an especially aggressive species of wasp and they will chase an interloper (in this case 300 yards) and sting repeatedly. It was necessary to work for its removal after dark since the soldiers did not retreat from the entrance until dark. A hose in the burrow had no effect. I wish I had known about vinegar; it would have saved a lot of misery. I would have had a lot of respect for anyone who could have moved that hive without getting stung pretty badly. I had a wedding in the field the next day so I resorted to an exterminator and there were wasps still patrolling the entrance up to 14 hours after the exterminator left. I did not have ready access to a bee keeper or much in the way of protective gear. I don’t like killing anything but in this case I went for what was available to me. I am not sure where I would have taken a yellow jacket hive where it would not have created an equal problem for someone else.
Merritt Clifton says
Several points are of note, the first of which is that dealing with any problem is easier before it gets large. Second, while stinging insects can be encouraged to leave a hive or nest in an underground burrow, the hive or nest itself is practically impossible to move; I don’t recommend trying to do it. Third, attempting to flood an underground hive or nest is almost always a dangerous exercise in futility, but bees, wasps, or hornets can be encouraged to move by saturating the soil around an underground hive or nest in a manner that simulates the effects of a rainy season. Most Californians don’t have as much water to waste as effective soil saturation takes. Some people resort to pouring gasoline into an underground hive or nest and detonating it, but my archives are full of accounts of Darwin Award candidates who did that, sometimes igniting whole neighborhoods. The good news is, underground hives and nests are very vulnerable to insectivorous predators, and seldom grow to problematic size in proximity to human dwellings. In this instance, the yellow jacket nest had been there for a considerable time to have become so large, and would probably never have been noticed if the narrator of the experience had not mowed the field where it was in preparation for a wedding. Once the unpleasant discovery was made the hard way, with wedding guests due to begin arriving in less than 24 hours, fumigating the burrow with an insecticide was probably the only viable option to ensure than no guests were stung.
Karel Minor says
Breaking my self imposed comment exile but bad science drives me mad. A little fast and loose here on the chemistry. http://www.compoundchem.com/2014/08/28/insectvenoms/
Merritt Clifton says
The link offers a good example of excessively complicating a usually simple matter. Says the most relevant paragraph, “You might have been told back in your science classes that bee stings are acidic, and can be neutralized with an alkali, whilst wasp stings are alkaline, and can therefore be neutralized with an acid. Sadly, this is something of an over-simplification. Whilst it’s correct that bee venom has some acidic components, whilst wasp venom has some alkaline constituents, the venom quickly penetrates the tissue once you’ve been stung. Therefore, topical application of an acid or alkali to the sting area is unlikely to provide relief.” Except that it does work well enough that many generations of beekeepers have observed the alkaline/acidic rule with sufficiently positive results to keep doing it and to keep advising others to do it, in absence of any other more accessible and generally effective remedies. The existence of some exceptions to a general rule does not disprove the applicability of the rule in most situations.
Jamaka Petzak says
Interesting re-reading this after having had the experience of having a colony in some outside HVAC ductwork on the side of my house. I called/emailed all of the appropriate entities in my area, only to be informed by every one that they would kill the bees, which was NOT to my liking. So I left them alone. They never bothered me or anyone else, and eventually, they left. I also had paper wasps build nests close to my front door and windows; my gardener was scared of them, but I told him they had not harmed me and said I wanted them left in place. After they left, I removed their nests, with no harm done to anyone. And after getting stung by a bee for the first time while up in the Mojave, I applied an aspirin poultice to the area. It was pretty painful as it was on my temple close to my eye, but no real harm done, except to the poor bee.
Have you had experience with carpenter bees?
They’re in my carport.
Elizabeth Clifton says
Lindsay I lived with carpenter bees for a few years in central Florida. Other than the fact that they are quite noisy and at times flew a little too close, I learned to live with them. They do pollinate so that’s a positive. If I saw a carpenter bee starting a new hole, I would chase them away. Not sure if that discouraged them. They are very determined. Here is some basic information.
Carpenter Bee Habits & Biology
Carpenter Bees are insects that overwinter in wood nests. They come out in the spring and mate. The females lay their eggs in excavated tunnels called galleries. Since Carpenter Bees pollinate, they provide the baby carpenter bees with a ball of pollen
During the spring, the males seek out the females, hovering around females that found some unfinished wood, such as under eaves, railings, etc. The males are territorial and will confront you if you enter their territory, but they are incapable of stinging. Females have a stinger, but are very docile. Females will nest in a all types of wood, but prefer weathered and unpainted wood.
Male carpenter bees tend to be territorial and can buzz around you if you approach closely, sometimes hovering a short distance in front of your face or buzzing around your head. Since males have no stinger, these actions are just for show and intimidation.
The female bee can squeeze through incredibly tiny places to bore into untreated wood.
susan rudnicki says
As a professional structural bee re-homer and beekeeper in Los Angeles, I find almost nothing in these remarks is helpful or accurate. Africanized feral bees, used in ALL my hives are the maligned critters of Hollywood lore and ignorant people who have never experienced them as honey bees. They are resilient, pest and disease resistant (unlike those commercial weaklings the media trumpets to the public with the message “all the bees are dying!!!”) They are a pleasure to work and make good honey crops, and don’t need coddling with drugs and chemical treatments and feeding. I would NEVER advocate a strict amateur try to remove a feral bee hive without the proper equipment and know-how. These hives can grow to great proportions and contain tens of thousands of bees. They DO NOT appreciate silly humans trying to demolish their home for the humans benefit, whatever that may be.
Merritt Clifton says
According to Susan Rudnicki’s web site HoneyLove, she began beekeeping in June 2011, which suggests she might have about 30 years less experience with bees, wasps, and hornets than I have, albeit more with the commercial end of the industry. (My mentor Walter Hawthorne, however, had been a beekeeper for more than 60 years at his death in 1986.) According to “Fatalities from venomous and nonvenomous animals in the United States (1999-2007),” by Joseph A. and J.D. Forrester, with C.P. Holstege, published in the June 2012 edition of Wilderness Environmental Medicine, based on Centers for Disease Control & Prevention data, bees, wasps, and hornets together kill an average of 79 Americans per year, with a marked increase occurring coincidental with the spread of Africanized bees in the U.S. Southwest.
Erin Fitzgerald says
Hello, I found your website while searching for solutions, and I love very much your efforts not to harm the lovely little crawlers of the earth! I live in Japan, in an old wooden house, and I have had, in one year, more insects enter my life than I’ve ever ever had!! Luckily, I love bugs, so I’m all right with most of what happens. But this year, I got hornets. At first, I used incense smoke at the end of a broom under their comb to get them to leave, then I knocked the nest down. 4 times in 3 locations I did this, before the nests really got started. I then rubbed soap on the last area they seemed to like in my shed. They stopped coming for most of the summer. Last night, when I walked outside, there was a gathering of 7 around my lighted living room door. This morning, they were still around, and flew into the nearby tree. They were still here this evening, so I did the incense thing again, smoking them out of the tree and leaving more burning sticks to deter them, at least for the night. I’m allergic to them, so I’m frightened. My bathroom is outside, connected by a walk way, as is my shower, and my turtles enclosure is right below the tree. I can’t let them live there. While I actually like and respect them… and it destroys me to think of these brave, lovely creatures suffering, and in all honesty haven’t been attacked or even approached by any during these events, I can’t let them live there. This time, I can’t find the nest though. How can I deter them from my home, which really is perfect for them? I don’t even kill cockroaches! Please help !
Merritt Clifton says
This is a difficult situation, with enough site-specific quirks, and perhaps some seasonal aspects of it as well, that finding the solution will have to be done on site. From this great distance, I’d guess that leaving sticks burning at night is more likely to be part of the problem than part of the solution. Floral incense sometimes attracts bees, especially when the scent is dispersed to semi-natural concentrations. Does that happen with Japanese hornets? Also, most insects are attracted by points of light at night: this is why insects & insectivorous bats circle lamp standards. As bees, wasps, and hornets are not normally nocturnal at all, I’d guess one aspect of the problem is that somehow you are accidentally stimulating them to be much more active at night than they normally would be. Unfortunately, though, all I can really offer are educated guesses. For definitive answers, you’d need an entomologist to do an on-site inspection. Fortunately entomology is a popular hobby in Japan, with entomology clubs in many communities and schools, whose members may be a resource of help to you.
Annoula Wylderich says
Very informative – thank you!
Penelope Smith says
A nice article with a personal, warm flavor and good info. The only bees I’ve been stung by are a few of the Africanized ones here. These individuals had a mean temper and sounded deranged when they communicated. They didn’t respond to clear communication and kind handling as other bees, wasps, and hornets I have known.