Friday, July 24, 2015

More Musings about Beekeeping with Africanized Bees

My first experience with beekeeping was through Africanized bees. This is the only bee available in Honduras so I learned how to deal with their defensive behavior and take advantage of them for honey production. A lot of trial and error has been involved over the last 24 years to determine what I could or could not do. 

Beekeepers in other countries with the Africanized bees probably have different experiences. Everyone has different resources available to them and different manners of managing hives. Some countries have a more developed beekeeping industry than others. Everyone also has their own personal situation that determines what they can or cannot do with their hives. 

So this post is my reality of working with Africanized bees. This is what I do and why I do it. The information here is based on my own personal experiences. 

This is a continuation of my previous blog entry, “Musings about Beekeeping with Africanized Bees.”

My background

Like I mentioned, the first honey bees I ever worked with were the Africanized bees. I applied to join Peace Corps at the end of my university career. I wanted to go to a Latin American country and really learn Spanish. I had studied Latin American studies in addition to print journalism. Peace Corps offered me Honduras but as part of their beekeeping program there—beekeeping with Africanized bees.

I actually didn’t give it a second thought—I was just thinking about the opportunity to go to Honduras. I didn’t really realize the reality of working with Africanized bees until I got in country. Peace Corps gave us training in beekeeping in general but also how to specifically manage the Africanized bees. This was in early 1991.

At that time I didn’t really have anything to compare them with—I had no experience with honey bees while growing up in Wisconsin. The closest I got to a honey bee as a boy was eating peanut butter and honey sandwiches as an after-school snack or freezing while playing outside on the lawn until the  occasional bumble bee would stop circling me and fly off.

But Peace Corps accepted me because I had a bit of a farming background (rural Wisconsin) and I spoke some Spanish. It is hard to find volunteers with beekeeping experience so they accept “generalists,” people who were willing to learn beekeeping and who can assimilate easily into a different culture.

Beekeeping in my Peace Corps days. I had several hives that I used for demonstration purposes and just to learn more about managing Africanized bees. This was a small hive so they stayed calm, unlike most hives in Honduras. With experience as a beekeeper in Honduras I learned to judge whether the bees should stay fairly gentle or whether I needed to fully suit up.

My first experiences with European bees didn’t come until quite a few years later in 2007. I returned to my home state of Wisconsin to work seasonally with a commercial beekeeper. These folks had nearly 2000 hives at that time and I was with them for three seasons. 

The work included nearly the entire gamut of beekeeping tasks, beginning with making nucs and package bees when the hives returned from almond pollination in California. We would then begin to move the hives from the central holding yard at the “farm” and to the out yards where we began supering them. Harvesting and honey extraction followed. Finally it was the fall treatments and feeding before sending the bees back to California to await the almond orchards again in the spring. 

I liked to joke with John about how his bees were wimps compared with my Africanized bees in Honduras. As commercial beekeepers you can get the bees riled up. This work is a matter of getting into and out of the yard as fast as possible. Time is always at a limit so the boxes and the hives will get banged around in order to finish the work. Bees would be all over in the air. But these bees were a different animal from by Africanized ones in Honduras. The bees wouldn’t really follow you out of the apiary and they settle back down fairly fast. They weren’t nearly as ornery and stingy as my bees.

Bees all over in the air—the nature of commercial beekeeping in Wisconsin. Get it done and get it done fast. We didn’t overly worry about riling up the bees a bit. But at no time did they act like my Africanized bees in Honduras.

I also started a small apiary with my brother so I had the opportunity to deal with European bees on a hobbyist’s level and in top bar hives.

More recently I had a chance to again work with European bees when I volunteered to do trainings with a top bar hive project in Jamaica. I did three one-month long assignments through Partners of the America’s Farmer to Farmer program. In Jamaica everything with beekeeping is still Europeanized. Never before had I done beekeeping in shorts and flip flops.

So all of this means I’ve seen both sides of the picture. The Africanized and the European. The ugly and the pretty.

My Bees in Honduras

All my hives have Africanized bees—pure 100 percent Africanized bees from Honduras. There are no longer any pure European bees here. Everything has become Africanized—bees with genes of both European and African strands of bees. But the African genes stand out and that means defensive behavior. 

I started the vast majority of my hives by capturing swarms. A few others came from cutouts. I work with the bees that I capture as they are, dealing with the temperaments with which they come.

I don’t do queen breeding and requeening in an attempt to improve their temperament or make them more productive. I also don’t buy queens. The queen rearing industry is not that developed in Honduras which complicates getting queens when needed. All queens are generally replaced naturally overtime by the colony itself.

I should also mention that I don’t do intensive management of my hives, mainly because of time restrictions imposed by my job as a fifth and sixth grade teacher. Generally the bees give me what they want in terms of honey and I’m satisfied with that.

My glove after a day of playing with the bees. For the newbee or inexperienced beekeeper, all those little white things in my glove are stings. I’ve been using insulated winter gloves that I brought back when I was home in Wisconsin. My wife sews a sleeve on them and the insulated part keeps the stings from passing through directly to my hand. Leather won’t stop all stings. Otherwise I use some cheap cloth garden gloves (three pairs!) with a sleeve sewn on the outer one.

Africanized bee management

But can they be managed? Can you do the normal hive manipulations to optimize the honey production?  Most definitely. When the Africanized bee first entered Honduras back in 1981, beekeeping went way downhill. Many of the backyard beekeepers got rid of their hives. Most people did not want to deal with very defensive bees. Few new beekeepers were taking their place—until recently. 

There has been a resurgence in beekeeping in the last ten years or so. The Honduran government and international development agencies has been promoting beekeeping as an economic alternative for Hondurans—because the Africanized bee can be managed, they can produce good amounts of honey, and they can create a healthy income for the people who want to work with them. It is just a matter of learning the proper management techniques.

The bees can be defensive, however. They have earned their nickname “killer bees” for a reason. Their defensiveness can go to the extreme where animals and people die. Most everyone I know can comment on deaths and severe stinging incidents caused by these bees. This is the main difference between the Africanized bee and the European bee.

Biologically the differences are minimal. Both bees collect honey and pollen in the same manner. They both raise new brood in the same manner. Comb is constructed and the nest is set up in the same way. The beekeeper harvests and extracts honey in basically the same manner. Similarly you can also split a hive and raise queens. The Africanized bee is slightly smaller and its development into an adult slightly shorter.

Africanized bees can be defensive. They earned their nickname “killer bees” for a reason. But at the same time, with plenty of smoke, slow and calm manipulations, and the proper weather a person can work with these bees and take advantage of their ability to produce honey.

Again, the difference is the increased defensiveness of the Africanized bee. This means the beekeeper needs to take extra steps or different steps during management to take into account this behavior. This temperament varies, however—sometimes greatly. Some hives can be very calm and can be manipulated without too many problems. At other times they can take their defensiveness to the opposite extreme and put into action their nickname of “killer.” In the end, I always enter the hives on the side of caution, expecting the worse but happy if it doesn’t transpire.

There have been many occasions where the best thing was to simply close the hive back up and return another day in an attempt to work them. They got so out of hand that it was literally like a black cloud around me. They were bouncing off my veil and trying to sting me where ever they could. Too many bees were dying from stinging. Although I wasn’t that worried about myself (I always suit up really well) I always think about that person taking a short cut across the pasture near the yard when they shouldn’t. 

Other times, however, they acted almost like a normal hive of European bees by staying calm and allowing me to look through and check their combs.

Triggering the Defensive Behavior

I have seen that their defensive behavior depend on a number of things—

  • the time of year (rainy season vs. dry season)
  • dearth vs. honey flow
  • the climate that day (overcast or sunny),
  • how many hives I go into (a couple hives or the entire apiary)
  • the type of management  I need to do (major or minor intervention),
  • the colony size (new swarm or established colony),
  • the beekeeper’s hive manipulations (slow and careful or not so)
  • the apiary location. 

The worst time to enter Africanized colonies is during the rainy season on an overcast day. The rainy season is the dearth period in Honduras—the vast majority of plants are not flowering so there are no blooms for the bees to work. And if a little something is blooming, the nectar often gets diluted with the rain. 

This means that all the bees tend to be at home, including the ornery old field bees. Everyone is there in the hive and ready to get into your face when you open it. I usually don’t even bother going to the bee yard if the day is a bit overcast, especially up in the mountains. It is hard to do any type of management, even feeding, if the bees will get riled up.

The Africanized bee is often at its worse during the rainy/dearth season, when feeding needs to be done. I try to avoid having to open up the hives so I use a system where the sugar water is poured through a screened section and into a tray located below it. Checking the brood area during this time of the year is just asking for trouble.

The best time or easiest time to work with a hive generally is during the honey flow on a nice sunny day. Many of the old field bees are out of the hive working the flowers. You’ll still get a lot of bees in the air if you are doing major manipulations but generally they don’t attack as aggressively as they do during the rainy season. 

The more hives you enter, the more defensive they will get. I can usually enter the first three or four hives without too many problems on a day with the right weather conditions. I may not even put on the full suit if that is all I am going to enter. From then on, each one gets a bit more defensive. Each one sets off the next one. People talk about keeping very small apiaries of just several hives, which makes sense for just this reason. 

If I want to have more hives in a location, I try to space them out as much as possible. Other times I take two days to go through the hives in a bigger apiary. All my hives are set up in pairs because of the costs of my hive stands. I’ll take the right hive one day and come back another day to do the left hive. Avoiding working the hives right next to each other makes them a bit more manageable.

You can’t bang the hive around, especially like we did during the commercial beekeeping back in Wisconsin. You need to work nice and slow, always using care when manipulating the combs. You constantly smoke the bees.

Big hives are always more defensive than a small hive—simply because it has more bees in it. Newly caught swarms are always easier to work until they grow to a certain size—maybe at least eight full combs. Then I start to see a notable behavior difference.

On occasion, there will be those certain apiaries where the bees are always defensive and constantly nasty. There never seems to be any rhyme or reason to it. The one I have in mind was in an intermediary zone, not high in the mountains or right down in the valley. It was neither very hot nor cold. The vegetation was excellent—probably my best producing yard. It didn’t usually matter how the climate was or how slow I would go when working with them, they always wanted to get into an uproar. We always needed to enter the apiary armor plated and ready to do battle. The only reason I tolerated this location was because I knew the bees would fill the boxes full of honey.

The Africanized bee doesn’t really like to stay in the box. The longer you keep a hive open, the more bees that crawl out. When you are done checking the hive, the box may sometimes be literally covered with bees. I smoke them and brush them away a bit in order to close up the box and eventually they start crawling back inside.

If I need to remove a wild colony, I normally wait until the afternoon. It can be the worst time of the day for me since it’s so hot. But my reasoning is that if the bees get ornery, evening won’t be far away to help settle them down. You can get the bees all riled up but come the next morning they are usually calm and going about their business normally. That means you can go about your business normally also.

There is a third part coming--"Even More Musings about Beekeeping with Africanized Bees ."


  1. HI Tom-
    Thanks for the great overview of your work and the history of how you got into bees. Do you see the rainy season as the dearth season (i.e. lack of blooms) in Honduras and in Jamaica? While in America we equate rain with blossoms/honey flow? Or am I misunderstanding. Also I'm working in Grenada with Peace Corps and bees and would like to use your glove picture and description for my trainings if possible, with your permission. I will give you credit of course. Thank you for your work and wonderful writing. M

  2. Saludos Megan. I’ve been following your blog and your recent posts about Grenada. It sounds exciting to be able to participate in a beekeeping project like that. It must be nice to be able to hit the ground running with your work in Grenada, putting to use your Peace Corps experiences from Senegal. That has to make a big difference.

    As far as the glove picture, please use it. That’s not a problem. Refer them to my blog. I always like to have new readers.

    The dearth period in Honduras begins with the rainy season, at the end of May or beginning of June. This is when we will get heavy rains about every afternoon. Come about August the rains let up for a while but there is still not really any blooms yet.

    In the valley the first major nectar flow will be around the end of October. Up in the mountains in the coffee zone there still won’t be any major nectar flow until around Christmas time. This is still considered the rainy season here but it’s different from June. We’ll get several days of lower temperatures and almost constant drizzle as cold front come through from up north.

    Now a couple question for you. Are the bees in Grenada Africanized or are they still all European, like Jamaica? And have you see anyone using top bar hives in Grenada? If there are some beekeepers, I’d be interested to know how this hive is working out for them.

    Good luck. Tom

  3. Just checking back on your comment today, Sorry for the late reply. Work has been good, started out a bit slower and has taken 3 months for me to push through the politics of various groups that should be working together. Found allies that will now assist in making my job easier instead of more difficult. Nothing is as simple as it looks. Complaining about it doesn't help, Finding away around or though is the only way. Luckily I found a way around, hopefully it holds weight :)

    Strange about the dearth season. The rains here start June with maybe 2-4 rains per week. There is a lull and they start up again more regularly until November, as I'm told. I would think there is a slight dearth from the start of the rains until they establish. Here there are 2 main flows right before the rainy season Jan-March and then gain now July-Nov. But again regionally, it differs here. My training model is to find as many nectar sources in a possible location and put your bees there. They also do no double brood as they want more hives instead of stronger. All using Langstroths.

    Thankfully everything is European and very calm. First place I ever saw working hives without any protective clothing and only using a smoker. (I joke with the farmers I want a dog I know isn't dead guarding my house, why do you want bees that act like flies?) Trinidad has Africanized though. I can put you in touch with a few I met at the Bee College that was here in May-I'll pass it along via FB.

    Do you happen to have a nectar source list from there? I'm compiling a world list of everything I can find and then going through what is here to comprise a list and bloom calender if possible. The island may be small but there are still differences in plants and blooming.

    Thanks and keep up the good work. Let me know if you ever want to visit!