Honey bees (Apis mellifera) are beneficial as pollinators of plants in nature, your garden, and on farms. Bees are required by many plants to produce fruits and seeds. Commercial beekeepers place apiaries within farmland and orchards to pollinate crops and produce honey for sale. Beeswax is used in candles and other household and industrial uses.
Honey bees might sting, usually in defense of their nest or when stepped on. Besides the pain and subsequent swelling and itchiness, a single bee sting is not a problem for people who are not allergic to bee venom. Most people survive a bee sting. The swelling and irritation can be alleviated with ice and a cooling antihistamine lotion.
A particularly aggressive hybrid subspecies of honey bee, the Africanized honey bee, was discovered in Santa Barbara County in 2002, and was found again in 2014 after a multiple stinging incident.
The Mosquito and Vector Management District of Santa Barbara County can assist South Coast residents with inspection and advice for control. Contact us at (805) 969-5050.
However, for a small percentage of people, a single bee sting is a life-threatening event. People who are allergic, or anaphylactic, may experience serious symptoms, such as hives along with itching; flushed or pale skin (almost always present with anaphylaxis); a feeling of warmth; a sensation of a lump in the throat; constriction of the airways from a swollen tongue or throat, which can cause wheezing and trouble breathing; a weak and rapid pulse; nausea, vomiting or diarrhea; dizziness or fainting.
Anaphylaxis can progress to become life-threatening with surprising speed. A person who is suffering anaphylactic symptoms should seek emergency medical help. The person suffering the symptoms should not drive themselves to seek help. Persons who know they are allergic may be carrying an epinephrine autoinjector, such as EpiPen.
Honey bees become pests when they attempt to nest inside your house or yard. Don't tolerate the establishment of a wild hive in your house or where you work or play. Remove potential nesting sites in and around buildings. Seal or screen all openings in the eaves and walls of your house. Young colonies are less defensive than older colonies with brood, therefore, do not procrastinate.
Foragers, Swarms, and Nests, Oh My!
Honey bees are social insects that live communally in a colony called a hive or nest. Commercial beekeepers keep colonies in stacked boxes called an apiary. A hive will contain many worker bees, drones, and a single queen bee who lays the eggs that hatch into larvae. The larvae are the immature, legless stage of honey bees, and are collectively called, brood. The queen controls whether the eggs she lays become male or female bees. Males are called drones and develop from unfertilized eggs, while females develop from fertilized eggs. Most of the eggs laid will become female worker bees, who do the bulk of the labor of maintaining the hive - defending the nest, producing the honeycomb, foraging for nectar and producing the honey.
Foraging honey bees are not agressive. Honey bees forage among flowers for nectar and pollen. Single bees and even groups of bees foraging on a blooming tree or a field of flowers are not likely to sting. Be careful, though, when playing or walking barefoot to avoid stepping on a honey bee.
Honey bees usually only sting in defense of their hive. If you approach a hive too closely, worker bees will come out to test your intentions, and fly directly at your head. This is the time to retreat - back away quickly and purposefully, but do not swat at the bees. If you crush a bee or a bee stings you, an alarm odor (pheromone) is released that will surely cause the other bees to begin stinging you.
When working, especially with power equipment and garden tools, and playing outdoors, look and listen for the characteristic buzz and purposeful flight of bees and wasps from nests - they can be seen flying in a straight line from their nest entrances. Do not work in close proximity to a nest or you or others become at risk for being stung. If you must work near a nest, consider contacting a pest control operator to control the nest, or wear a bee protection suit. Insect repellents do not deter angry bees. Commercial beekeepers and inspectors must be careful when working their hives to avoid aggravating the bees who may then go out and sting unprotected people, pets or livestocks who may be nearby.
Swarms of honey bees are not aggressive. A hive can have between forty to sixty thousand bees. When a hive becomes crowded, the old queen and other newly emerged and mated queen bees will leave the hive with half of the colony, as a swarm of bees, to search for a suitable location to start a new hive. While intimidating, swarms or clusters of bees are usually not aggressive, as there is no brood (larvae) or honey for them to protect.
A swarm is a mass of flying honey bees that is particularly hard to deal with. A swarm is quite mobile and will hopefully move on to another area. Swarming bees will form a "cluster" around the queen, on the ground or in a bush, to rest, keep warm and protect the queen. Beekeepers can easily collect a swarm when it has settled into a cluster. Hopefully for you, the bees do not find a suitable site for a hive, on your property, and will leave the area after one to three days.
When a site is found that is suitable for a hive, the scout bees inform the swarm and guide them to the location. Unfortunately, the chosen site may be inside walls, attics, chimneys, utility boxes or trees on your property. Do not allow a colony to live in your house, as a colony will grow quickly, and become harder to remove with time. Do not try to control bees yourself. Consider contacting a commercial beekeeper or pest control company. They will have the knowledge and equipment to deal with the problem.